Think for a minute about the process of shopping for clothes. When you go shopping for clothing, you probably look through the racks, select several outfits of varying styles that you think you might like and then take them to the dressing room. There are several questions you are asking of each set of clothes you try on. While you are looking in the mirror, you consider: Do I like it? Does it fit? Is it my style? And then, if you are shopping with another person, you will probably step out of the dressing room and ask the person you are with, "What do you think?" You want to know how they will react to seeing you in that particular outfit.
As kids and teens grow up, they work through a very similar process with their personality and identity. They will "try on" different characteristics, attitudes, opinions and ways of thinking and acting. As they do, they will consider, perhaps subconsciously, Does it fit? Is it me? Do I like how I feel when I wear it? And one of the biggest questions of all, What reaction do I get from others? Do people accept and affirm me when I "put on" that particular aspect of personality?
As parents watching teens figure out and discover their own personality, this can be a confusing and perhaps difficult time. Some parents are surprised or shocked when their teen begins to act or talk in ways that they have never seen before, or they cannot explain. Teens will sometimes announce things that seem to come out of nowhere. Your straight-A student may announce "I don't like school anymore." The kid who never liked sports may say, "I want to try out for football." The child who used to love Sunday School may proclaim, "I don't believe in God." Often the shocked parent will try, with numerous strategies, to convince their teen that they don't really mean what they are saying. They may encourage or push their son or daughter to go back to the way they were before. This usually does not go well and can create tension or cracks in the once peaceful and harmonious parent-child relationship.
What the parent may not realize is that this "trying on" of different personalities or opinions is actually an important part of growing up. And a deeper, underlying question that the teen may be asking is: Will you still accept and love me if ... fill in the blank.
The question that parents should consider during the teen years is, Do I want our family to be a safe place for my teen to grow up? Do I want my teen to feel the freedom to share their thoughts and feelings while they work through the process of developing their own identity and personality? Many teens who feel rejected by their parents will retreat from them, and find other places and circles in which to process this journey. Often, very well intended parents inadvertently send a message that acceptance and even love is based on the teen acting and living up to certain expectations.
Those parents who want to nurture a positive relationship with their teen must often take the difficult step of holding back their shock or disapproval (which are often interpreted as rejection and shame) and entering into a new phase of their relationship in which they allow for a greater freedom of thought and expression. This parent takes great steps to communicate unconditional love for their teen, while inviting him or her into an ongoing conversation about life that is characterized by warmth and safety rather than judgment and control. This is not an easy task, and requires a tremendous amount of faith in the power of love and truth, and ultimately God.
As parents, we can set the tone and create an atmosphere for our home as a safe and positive place for teens to work through the task of figuring out their own views, beliefs and personality. If we believe that our worldview and way of life is based on what is good and true and life-giving, then we can be open to questions and challenges without taking it personally. We can enter into a respectful and robust dialogue about values and beliefs, and create a safe place to discuss the important issues of life. When our teens feel acceptance and safety, they are more likely to share their journey. When they become convinced that you love them unconditionally, they will be more likely to view you as an ally, and allow you the privilege of influencing them as they discover and develop their own identity.