3 Ideas to Help Your Adolescent Develop Stronger Self-Identity


Looking for ways to develop a stronger relationship with your adolescent? Struggling to help them deal with and navigate this tumultuous period of their lives? Walk with me a minute, let’s chat about it, and look at some helpful ideas.

They’re going through so many changes… all you want is to a) understand and relate to them better, while b) helping them to better understand themselves. Great! First, let’s establish a baseline definition of adolescence so things don’t get too abstract.


What is Adolescence?

Adolescence refers to the general age bracket of 13 to as high as about 21 (many argue aspects of adolescence are lasting longer, stretching even further into the twenties for segments of modern populations).

In contemporary western society adolescence is shaped and defined by the interplay of a large variety of social, cultural, technological, and economic forces. Kids these days are being pulled in thirty different directions, while biologically puberty’s raging. It’s tough!

Throw traumatic events from early childhood into the mix, or ongoing trauma, and this stage gets especially difficult. Throughout my career as a child psychiatrist I’ve had the honor to work with hundreds of these kids, and over the last 5 years integrate Art Therapy which has been profound.

Parents remember the period, but can’t really revisit no matter how hard we try (plus, things have changed so dramatically from when we were their age). Often we struggle to empathize, but can’t seem to detach ourselves from a far more focused sense of self-identity and/or our matured versions of “self-in-world.”

We’re adults, while they’re stuck in this grey transitional period between childhood and early adulthood, sharing in many of the challenges and obstacles of both worlds.

As a child psychiatrist, some of the most common questions I see parents stressing about are:

  • Who are their friends and can I/we influence their choices in this arena of life?
  • Are they ready to handle more responsibility?
  • Can they be made to clearly understand the long-term impact of their choices?
  • How do they perceive the world and their place within it?
  • What aren’t they sharing with me?

Great questions! If I had to distill all these issues down to a single manageable issue, it would be sense of self. The more aware we are of ourselves, our habits, choices, and desires, the more centered we become (key to maturing). So let’s get to what you came here for, ideas to help strengthen your adolescent’s self-identity.


3 Ideas to Strengthen Your Adolescent’s Self-Identity

The most critical question that adolescents are tackling is, “Who am I?” That’s the core issue. Does this question always challenge us throughout life? Sure, but younger kids lack the experience and insight that comes with time. So what we’re trying to do is give them tools, and to boost their sense of self.


Idea #1: Stepping Back

In my article, “Skills Young Adults Can Use to Cope with Stress” we talk about three core skills we can bolster to help them process emotions in a healthy and productive way:

  1. Identifying Emotions
  2. Observing Emotions & Thoughts Together
  3. Connecting Thoughts & Emotions to The Body

We can do the same exact thing when it comes to identifying the pressures adolescents are facing, then observing how they influence thought patterns (behavior), and impact the body.

What are their core pressures?

Peer groups, social media/popular entertainment, their future outlook, and family to name a few, but again, at the center of it all is the constant search for self. Teaching kids how to step back and identify external pressures is a good first step to them processing them better.


Idea #2: A Simple Game of Wit

For more “troubled teens” or teens who’ve been abused, coming directly at them with penetrating questions can be tricky. They may become instantly defensive or feel they’re being put under a magnifying glass. How about a game instead? A fun game of wit that can be as fun as it is revealing. Here’s how it works.

  • One person thinks of a random physical object like a stick, a tennis ball, or coffee cup.
  • The other person then has 30 to 60 seconds to think of as many things they could do with that object as they can.

Seems pretty simple, and it is, but it’s also imaginative, introspective, and helps to sharpen the wit which increases self-esteem and confidence throughout all areas of life. Give it a try. How many things can you think of off-the-cuff to do with a…roll of duct tape?


Idea #3: An Art Therapy Exercise – Discovering You

In my video-based Online Art Therapy Course for adolescents and young parents called “Process & Processing”, one of the activities is all about helping children grasp their unique characteristics and traits – goals, friendships, morals/values, group loyalties, etc.

First, I have them draw/paint themselves, or perhaps use a pen/pencil to trace their hand, and then around the drawing ask them to complete sentences like these:

  • “I like…”
  • “Should I…”
  • “I believe…”
  • “Can I…”

There are very few thought patterns that have more influence our lives than “I” statements. Over time they shape our self-image, how we see ourselves in the world, how we manage our time, our assertiveness levels, and more.

It’s very common for the discussion, or the focus to begin revolving around the fact that we all face uncertainties growing up. It’s par for the course. But as we become more and more familiar with our core selves, we experience less doubt, relate better to others, and make more confident decisions.



At the center of our life experience is the question, “Who am I?” Most of our thoughts, feelings, and actions are an expression of this search. Adolescents are building the foundation and it can be a challenging period between childhood and early adulthood. Exercises like those above, and activities like the ones in my Online Art Course can help boost self-image during the process, and onward throughout life. Enjoy!