Working the puzzle of "Who Am I?"

You may not have read Erik Erikson in a while (or ever) but he is an outstanding developmental theorist who suggests that at each stage of life, we experience something like a developmental tug of war. For example, he says that in our first year, the forces of trust versus mistrust are battling. If our needs as babies are met, if mom picks us up, if dad feeds us regularly, we come to feel that the world is a good place, worthy of trust. If, however, we are not cared for in a reliable way, we succumb to mistrust. And so it goes at each stage of development.

By early adolescence, a teen’s task is to develop a sense of identity, who I really am. Everything seems to be up for grabs: A morning person, a night person; a saver, a spender; kind, mean; good at math, good at basketball. Am I the kind of person who tells the truth? Am I a good kid? Identity is like a huge jig saw puzzle with about a million parts which all add up to “Who Am I?”

Like any puzzle worker knows, the easiest thing is to begin assembling a puzzle with the straight edges. In this case, the straight edges are the “known”, for-sure parts of who I am: I am female; I am an American; I am white/black/brown; I am a Smith. These straight edges are the pieces I can be sure of, which are unchanging, easy to see when I look in the mirror each day.

From early on, kids begin putting pieces into their puzzles: I’m a good boy; I am strong and healthy; I’m dumb; I make lots of mistakes. Our young teens often ask grandparents, “Was my dad popular when he was in middle school?” or “Did my mom have a boy friend when she was my age?” If it was true of my parent, it might be true of me. I could add a whole set of pieces to my puzzle.

But then, by high school, some problems can arise in the whole identity thing. For example: I am a good kid; I am a close friend of John’s; John and I pretty much follow the rules our parents set out. Then, one night John invites me to spend the night and whispers, “Hey, maybe we can sneak out and meet some girls I know.” This can throw my identity puzzle for a loop because I’m a good kid; I pretty much follow the rules; I like John but I don’t think my parents or his would like me to sneak out. I’d like to meet some girls, but…. And so I begin to try to move the puzzle pieces around to keep them all in the puzzle. I may feel I have to toss some pieces out. Maybe I’m not such a good kid; maybe I’ll have to give up my friendship with John. In fact, it is quite common to see kids shifting friendships in early high school as they look for a social group in which they feel they can be “who they really are.”

Developing a clear sense of identity takes quite a long time. It is so complicated that we’ll see our kids working on it intensely from early middle school until well into college age. We will know when they are making progress when we hear them making choices based on who they feel they are, like…

I don’t know if I’ll go to that party. They aren’t really my kind of kids….

I’ve decided to quit football. I don’t like getting hurt and I don’t like hurting other people.

No, I’m not going to do cheer leading, Mom. Do I seem like that kind of kid?

The great news is that THEY are figuring out what kind of kids they are.