Even Shakespeare wrote about it – the contrary nature of teens. Romeo and Juliet were given strict orders to stay away from each other but neither did. And the young couples in Midsummer Night’s Dream running off into the forest? That might have earned those teens a trip to the Nunnery, which was a sort of Elizabethan teen military school. Sound familiar to our time? Actually teen posturing aginst parents has a very important developmental function, and understanding the “hidden language” of adolescent oppositionality can keep our responses on the right track.
Just as there is a spurt in height during the adolescent period, there is a spurt in identity development as well. Identity in teens is a lot like a building on a Hollywood movie set. The exteriors, hair, clothes, and makeup, set the tone while the important work of identity development occurs behind the scenes. Even teen facial expressions, ranging from grimaces to sarcastic glances, keep parents and adults from seeing past the attitude revealing the fact that teens find out who they are not long before they discover who they are. In other words, teens will experiment with dress and behavior in order to “try on” adult identities. For most, this is a temporary fix until transitional challenges like getting a first job or moving away to college become the formative influences on identity. But for others, actually fewer than the media tends to portray, oppositionality becomes an easier path to identity formation. For those teens, either behaving like a psuedo-adult with extreme independence from parenteal limits, or negative identifications with a drug using crowd offer a “quick fix” to the identity formation challenge.
Why aren’t we successful as parents simply controlling these independent behaviors and filling teens’ time with things we want them to identify with , maybe religious activities or sports? Research suggests that teens still engage in identity exploration even when strict limits and strong guidance from parents are set in place. Stronger authoritarian messages about who teens will become can cause identity exploration to go “underground” even if it is not revealed in black tee shirts and torn jeans. More frightening behaviors such as self-cutting can mark an identity struggle that has turned into depression because the teen can’t find a way to talk about these confusing changes in his or her sense of self.
Rather than using the same method of influence over teens used when they were much younger, parents who acknowledge that the advice or limits have to make sense in a teenager’s mind play a much greater role in the outcome of the situation. Examples and parent predictions have to be relevant to the adolescent’s world in order to sink in. For example, being critical of the “death warmed over” look of black eyeliner against a chalky white blush by making statements about embarassing herself or what other people will say won’t go nearly as far as asking why she thinks a friend of hers has started wearing her makeup this same way. So, while teenagers continue to hide the key that unlocks the door to their inner selves during this adolescent stage, we can let them know that we understand the challenge they face in finding themselves and how lonely it can be while they are stuck behind the door of identity development.