Some teens are able to learn to develop and discover their identity in a healthy and age-appropriate way. However, for other teens, the time of identity formation results in participation in risky and promiscuous behaviors that could potentially have a negative and lasting effect on their lives.
When teens participate in harmful and inappropriate behavior can be very concerning for parents. However, it’s important for parents to remember that teens in crisis can become healthy and happy once again with proper treatment. A credible residential treatment program teaches teens healthy patterns of thought and action that can replace harmful and risky behaviors with positive and healthy attitudes, positive relationships, and a greater sense of self.
What is Teen Identity Development?
Identity refers to one’s sense of as an individual and how they define themselves in terms of values, beliefs, and role in the world. Self-identity in adolescence forms the basis of our self-esteem later in life. A teen’s identity is the result of various internal and external factors. Though a teen has some control over their identity development, teen identities are also formed by environmental forces outside of their control: peers, family, school, ethnic identity, and other social environments. A developmental psychologist, James Marcia, advocates that teen identity development occurs in response to crises in domains such as school, relationships, and values.
Teen identity develops as teens try out different roles and attitudes in different settings, such as home, school, and social atmospheres which allows teens the opportunity to explore their own values, belief systems, personal ethics, spirituality, sexuality, and gender.
Why is Teen Identity Development Important?
Identity formation in teens is about developing a strong sense of self, personality, connection to others and individuality. Therefore, a positive teen self-identity is vital because it shapes a teen’s perception of belonging not just for their teen years but for most of their adult life. In addition, a positive self-identity is correlated with higher self-esteem. Positive reinforcements of effort, good choices, and perseverance from parents can help adolescents develop a strong sense of self.
Erik Erikson, a psychologist, argues that if a teen does not establish what their personal beliefs and values are then they will have an identity crisis. Erikson believes identity development is a key process for teens and that a failure to establish identity leads to role confusion and a weak sense of self later in life.
5 Common Ways Troubled Teens Display Their Self- Identity Issues
As a way to navigate the stress and confusion that comes with identity development some teens, turn to outside signs and symbols to help them define their identity. Les Parrott, Ph.D., a professor of psychology, developed the five most common ways in which teens demonstrate their struggles with identity.
Examples of Identity Issues
The 5 most common ways teens display issues with self-identity include:
- Seeking Status Symbols: Includes clothing and possessions to create a sense of positive affiliation
- Forbidden “Grown-up” Behaviors: Some teens believe that appearing mature will bring acceptance, so they begin engaging behaviors such as smoking, drinking, drugs, and sexual activity.
- Rebellion: Many teens use rebellion as a way to show that they are different from their parents and to be accepted by their peers.
- Idols: Some teens may identify with a famous person and as a result, try to become like that person. As a result, they lose hold of their own identity.
- Cliques: Teens who are forming their identity will often form cliques because they do not want to be associated with anyone with undesirable characteristics.
Again, there are a variety of ways that teens experience identity formation, some experiences being more harmful than others. In the sections below, we discuss the more serious issues in teen identity development and how parents can help.
How Parents Can Help Their Teenager Form a Positive Self-Identity
Parents are very important in terms of teen identity development. Teens with close relationships with their parents have lower rates of experimentation with drugs and risky sexual behaviors (Teen Connection, Mental Health, and Youth, PBS). For your teen, the process of teen identity development can be a stressful time and can lead to one feeling overwhelmed and unsure. Providing your child with a caring and accepting adult influence, whether you are a parent, relative, or teacher, is critical in securing a healthy identity development. Simply spending time with your troubled teen is one of the most important roles you can play in their life. The consistent and caring influence and presence of adults in an adolescent’s life is one of the best ways to ensure a seamless transition to adulthood.
Parents can help their troubled teen develop a positive self-identity in the following ways:
- Model healthy lifestyle habits and skills to manage stress
- Teach healthy ways to handle life disappointments
- Avoid making comparisons between your teen and others
- Give your teen compliments or positive reinforcement
- Encourage and promote healthy sleep habits for your teen
- Hold boundaries with your child while communicating love for them as a person
When parents have exhausted the above methods and still continues to see their teen struggle to form their identity, it may be time to seek professional help. One of the best treatment options in helping struggling teens develop a positive self-identity is through a nature therapy program. Nature therapy has a long history as an intervention used to promote positive change in promoting healthy identity development in teens.
How Can a Short-term Residential Program For Teens Help Your Family?
Though it can be hard for parents to let go and acknowledge their teen needs external help, a credible residential treatment program can relatively quickly and positively change your son or daughter’s life for the better. Psychologist Erik Erikson advocated that teen identity development is fostered by experiences that allow individuals to express their individuality and receive feedback and validation from others.
Our nature-based therapy program provides experiences that promote healthier relationships and positive identity formation in teens. A credible residential treatment program can also positively affect a teen’s self-perception, confidence, and leadership skills by providing unique experiences and challenging opportunities that develop competence and confidence from within.
Residential Treatment Promotes Healthy Teen Relationships
The activities at a nature-based therapy program include unique experiences such as hiking, camping, and mountain biking. These experiences provide a novel and prime opportunity for teens to develop their identity and learn how to relate to others in a healthy and positive way. Research shows the scope of adventure activities led individuals to drop their social facades and allow teens to become more open to self-reflection and feedback from others (Taniguchi, 2004). Furthermore, a credible residential treatment program allows teens in crisis with a unique opportunity to develop meaningful friendships with peers and adult therapists because many of the activities require participants to work together in teams in order to succeed.
Nature Therapy Promotes Confidence in Teens
Nature-based therapy also promotes confidence in teens. When a teen participates in a challenging activity, they see they can overcome obstacles and activities that seem difficult at the start, such as camping, hiking, or backpacking. Pushing past a physical boundary can increase the youth’s self-esteem and teach them they can do hard things.
In learning that they can overcome difficult odds, their perceptions of themselves and their personal abilities are improved. They can take pride in who they are and what they can accomplish. While engaging in these various physical activities, the trained staff give them positive verbal encouragement and feedback which also helps to increase their personal efficacy. Processing experiences during and after activities with therapists help teens internalize the experiences they are having and relate them to their sense of self.
Nature Therapy Promotes Positive Identity Formation in Teens
Research shows that providing teens with opportunities for self-expression, feedback from others, new experiences, skill acquisition, and self-reflection can help facilitate positive identity development in teens (Duerden, Mat. Widmer, Mark. “Adventures in Identity Development: The Impact of Adventure Recreation on Adolescent Identity Development, 2009). Credible nature-based therapy accomplishes this through organized adventure activities that challenge the individual just enough to promote positive identity development. Within this spectrum of organized activities, a nature therapy program teaches teens how to overcome challenges and develop a sense of competence, both of which promote identity development in teens.
Additionally, the recreational activities in a nature therapy program, such as hiking or biking, can play a critical development role for teens because it provides a context to participate in a challenging activity that will positively contribute to identity development and self-confidence. Along the way, our residential treatment program will provide the teen with experienced and caring therapists to provide helpful tools and feedback that can positively impact their identity development.
The process of forming an identity is a critical task of adolescence. Teen identity formation involves one learning how they want to express themselves and their personality in their own unique way. This process can lead to some teens making choices that disappoint the expectations of some of your family or friends. Parents of teens in crisis should ensure they are providing their child with love, support, and healthy boundaries that promote healthy development.
However, when the choices your teen makes become harmful to themselves or others, it may be time to seek external help. A growing body of findings suggests that the organized activities a credible nature therapy program offers can provide teens with lasting benefits in establishing healthier patterns and can assist teens in positive identity formation. With proper help, your teen can become their best self and feel content and confident in their own skin.
About ThreePeaks Ascent Nature-based Therapy Program
ThreePeaks Ascent’s short-term residential treatment center was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research backed, and safe nature therapy program. The professionals at ThreePeaks Ascent understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.
At ThreePeak Ascent, we focus on helping teens and their families through difficulties that occur when various emotional, behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.
Benefits of a Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment Program
Being immersed in nature can have a profound impact on a teenager. It improves their mental, emotional, and physical health. Combined with a proven clinical approach, a therapeutic experience helps teens heal. Here are specific benefits your family can expect to see while your teen is in nature-based short-term residential treatment.
The first stage of effective short-term residential treatment focuses on assessment and stabilization.
By observing your teen in a novel environment, our experienced therapists gain a deep understanding of what is really happening with your child. Research indicates accurate mental health assessments can lead to a 20% reduction in the number of days in treatment.
Mental health stabilization provides a safe environment to deescalate your teen’s level of distress and/or reduce their acute symptoms of mental illness. Until teens feel genuinely safe, they cannot begin to heal. One therapeutic modality emphasizes that “Cues of safety are the treatment” and “safety is defined by feeling safe and not simply by the removal of threat.” It is not enough to merely tell a teen in crisis that they are mentally and emotionally safe, they must actually feel and believe it.
Once your teen feels safe, our wilderness-based residential treatment program provides a novel and challenging environment that disrupts their unhealthy patterns and behaviors. Behaviors that either:
- cause your teen's mental & emotional health struggles
- or that your teen has developed as a negative way of coping with their struggles.
The second stage of an effective residential treatment program focuses on engaging teens in the therapeutic process and empowering them with the skills needed to thrive.
1. Engaging Teens in Therapy (even if they’ve been resistant to it before)
The ThreePeaks Ascent treatment program is designed to re-engage teens in healthy adolescent development. When your teen attends a short-term residential program, they are taken away from negative distractions they may have at home. They engage in treatment in a way that would not be possible in any other setting.
Your teen will participate in individual, group, and family therapy sessions while in treatment. This allows them to process their behavior as well as make changes in their personal life and family relationships. They are also able to learn from their peers, realize they are not alone in their struggles, and gain motivation to make changes.
We've found that by the time of discharge, 90% of teens were actively engaged in treatment. When contacted six months after treatment, most of these teens maintained the motivational progress they made during treatment.
2. Empowering Teens Through Skill Development
As your teen engages in the therapeutic process, they’ll start to see huge progress. But for long-term healing, it is not enough to only alleviate your teen’s struggles, we must also empower them with the skills needed to thrive in life. These skills include:
- Self-awareness skills like a growth mindset, identifying one's feelings, developing interests & sense of purpose
- Self-management skills like emotional regulation, self-motivation, resilience, setting & achieving goals, planning & time management
- Responsible decision-making skills like showing curiosity & open-mindedness, anticipating & evaluating the consequences of one’s actions, internal locus of control
- Relationship skills like communicating effectively, seeking & offering support, resolving conflicts constructively
- Social awareness skills like showing empathy & compassion for others, taking others’ perspective, recognizing strengths in others
Your teen is powerful, intelligent, and capable. They are among the leaders of tomorrow. That is why the third stage of our short-term residential treatment program focuses on helping teens redirect their previously misused potential toward developing mastery in life.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed years ago, “Happiness is the feeling that power is increasing—that resistance is being overcome.” When teens develop competence and mastery they:
- gain self-reliance and self-confidence
- become more resilient
- have a greater sense of meaning and purpose
- and better resist negative emotions.
Overall, building mastery helps teens develop a positive mindset. Because they feel competent and in control, they go from feeling, “I’m not capable” to “I can do this!”
Additional References & Mental Health Resources
- How Teenagers Find Themselves by Scientific American
- The Importance of a Child’s Social Identity
- Adolescent Identity Development and Distress in a Clinical Sample, Rachel E. Wiley, and Steven L. Berman
- Identity Development during Adolescence, Jane Kroger
- Organized activities as contexts of development (pp. 185–210. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Patterns of Interaction in Family Relationships and the Development of Identity Exploration in Adolescence, Harold D. Grotevant and Catherine R. Cooper
- Erikson, E. H. (1959). Identity and the life cycle. In G. S. Klein (Ed.), Psychological issues (pp.18–171). New York: International Universities Press.
- The Role of Communication Technology in Adolescent Relationships and Identity Development. Betty-Ann Cyr • Steven L. Berman Megan L. Smith, 2014
- Haggard, L., & Williams, D. (1991). Self-identity benefits of leisure activities. In B. Driver, P. Duerden, Mat D., Widmer, Mark A., Taniguchi, Stacy T. and McCoy, J. Kelly. Adventures in Identity Development.
- Your Teen’s Search for Identity By Amy Bellows
- Anderson-Hanley, C. M., & Ellis, M. V. (1996). Enhancing identity development: Efficacy of outward bound-type program interventions. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University at Albany, NY.
About the Author
Steven DeMille, Ph.D. LCMHC
Steven DeMille is the Executive Director of ThreePeaks Ascent. He is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. His educational experience includes an MA in Mental Health Counseling and a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision. His research focus is on Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment, nature, adolescent development, and counseling ethics. He is actively involved in the counseling and psychology profession and holds regional and national leadership positions. He publishes and presents on Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment and the use of the outdoors. This is done around the world at the national and international conference levels.