By Manuela Barichello

"Understanding your teenager’s “sudden” search for identity and independence without butting heads… you can survive this and even enjoy the process!" 

How does identity form…and how do we know who we are?

Individuation
The period between leaving childhood and entering adolescence is an interesting time fraught with many hurdles, successes and challenges. It is also a time when a person’s identity is forming and there is a recognisable mental, emotional, social, and physical growth. In this mix is the desire to express individuality. According to Jungian psychology, this is individuation, and relates to the individual’s personality formation taking greater form and differentiating from others. Specifically, it is related to the ‘separating’ or individuating from one’s parents, and during adolescence it takes on a particular importance. Ideally, it is a time when the family should allow their adolescent room to grow and explore aspects of identity, personality, and self –  but within reason. This may become quite confronting for the unsuspecting parents as they encounter this newly found seemingly defiant “independence” in their once compliant child, who now is clearly determined to show they have a mind of their own. As evidence suggests, it is considered in the best interests of the adolescent to assist them towards individuation so that they can achieve optimal and physical and mental health. Given the opportunity to advance towards individuation will generally ensure a happier, mature, responsible, and well-adjusted individual.

What happens when parents accidently override the individuating adolescent?
Parenting can be a tricky business at the best of times and it can really try the patience of the most well-meaning parent, leaving them exasperated and questioning their parenting abilities. This is especially so when confronted with an aloof or unresponsive teenager who gives either minimal responses such “hmmm, yep or nah” or angry “no leave me alone!” before retreating to their room or slamming the door. In this situation it is best not to make demands that they communicate with you then and there, but rather allow them space to cool off and to try again later when they have calmed down. 

Problems occur when parents are insensitive towards their children’s feelings and do not respect or accept their choices, or identities. This can have the effect of negatively impacting on the individuation process. Furthermore, if children learn suppression  through not being allowed to  experience difficult emotions like sadness, worry, or anger, they may find it difficult to learn to know or trust their own feelings, or fail to adequately develop a sense of trust in their own judgement. 

What happens in young adulthood?
Individuation away from parents continues throughout adolescence as they transition into young adulthood. They may choose their own education pathway, peer groups, hobbies, careers, and travel destinations and may make some, or even many life choices that may seem at odds with the choices their parents may want for them. Those who have successfully individuated will likely be able to make these choices with little anxiety. However, the process of individuation may be challenging to some, especially the anxious child who has had difficulty individuating and becoming more adult like. For them, making choices that depart from family ideals and values may prove especially difficult. The inability to individuate, or the suppression or denial of the true self, can both cause distress and negatively impact the development of a defined sense of identity. 

Why Is Individuation Important? 
Individuation is considered essential to the development of a healthy identity and the formation of healthy relationships with others. A person who does not successfully individuate may lack a clear sense of self and feel insecure about pursuing goals different to those of family members. As a result they may experience feelings of low mood, anxiety, increased dependency, as well as difficulties in romantic or workplace relationships, and poor decision-making skills. Furthermore, if adolescents are not allowed to work through these milestones, it could result in a general sense of not knowing who they are or what they want from life. 
 
How to support your adolescent being an individual
Research by Fuller (2014) recommends a number of strategies that parents can use to help their son or daughter become a more confident, and self-assured individual:
Firstly, it is important to be there when your son/daughter wants to communicate, to eliminate any distractions, such as phones, computers or the television (i.e., provide undivided attention) 
Secondly, because many teens don’t get a great deal of positive feedback, providing them with several “I notice” comments each day can make a huge difference. 
 
1. “I noticed that you were really enjoying that…”
2. “I noticed you really worked hard on …”
3. “I noticed you are a lot more competent with …”
4. “I noticed you felt energized when …”
 
Thirdly, being loved by your family. Even in a most dysfunctional family, a teenager who has one family member who loves them and considers them pretty good can be sufficient to turn them from poor to positive functioning. 
 
Fourth, having a diversity of friends – A teenager does not have to be the most popular, sociable or outgoing person about. The important thing is to have a few options in terms of friendship groups, as this will protect them. Teens tend to define themselves by their friends they see. Having different groups avoids them getting locked in to only one way of being.
 
Lastly, the importance of having positive connections outside the family around themes that enhance positive feelings, relationships and finding meaning, have been associated with increased wellbeing, relationships and academic success. For instance, performing small acts of kindness, seeking out ‘flow’ experiences (activities where attention is sustained and includes a sense of achievement), learning to forgive, or keeping a gratitude diary can be important towards the transition to young adulthood (Seligman, 2012). Equally important is providing love and support to your young person as this will assist them in becoming more self-assured in pursuing new experiences and adventures. 

 


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