Twelve Talks to
Have With Teens
Identity development is a central task of adolescent development. Who am I? How do I fit in? What is my role? What do I believe in? These are all key questions adolescents are asking themselves. Important dimensions of identity formation include race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Talking to an adult they trust can help youth form a positive sense of personal identity.
- During adolescence, teens are much more self-conscious about their changing identities than at any other stage in their lives
- Adolescence is usually the first time a person considers many of the dimensions of their own identity, including.
- Race & Ethnicity
- Part of developing a strong sense of self is questioning values (including faith, politics, sexuality or dating expectations), setting educational goals, use of alcohol and drugs and much more. It’s normal for parents and caregivers to struggle with balancing setting healthy boundaries with empowering them to develop their own set of values and sense of self.
- Many teens use their body as a form of self-expression, which can include how they dress and use make-up, hairstyles or hair colors, jewelry, accessories, piercings and tattoos. In some cases, these choices will challenge social or gender norms. While it’s totally normal for parents and caregivers to sometimes find these experiments surprising and confusing, keeping your emotions in check in order to have a conversation about what the change means to your teen — and remaining curious about why they are expressing themselves that way — can help you and your teen better understand their identity.
- Adults can support teens’ development of a positive sense of self by encouraging on-going discussions and providing consistent support as they explore who they are and who they will become.
Jefferson County High School Age Youth
Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, 2019
I was just reading about “identity.” I’m curious about what you think people mean by identity?
What do you think has the biggest effect on how you see yourself? What about how other people perceive you?
What do you wish I understood better about you?
How do people react to you or your friends in a way that you think is based on stereotypes?
What do you wish I knew about you?
If there was one thing I could be more supportive about in your life, what would that be?
What do your friends say about diversity issues?
What are your thoughts about how schools could deal with systemic racism?
Bring up current events with your teen.
Use the protests, outrage over George Floyd’s murder, and discussions on racial injustice to start an in-depth conversation about how racism exists in our community.
June is Pride Month, which is a great conversation starter to discuss gender and sexual orientation.
Another conversation could be about the recent Supreme Court decision clarifying that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 extends to LGBTQ+ people.
- Tell your teen your stories about your family, your experiences, your history, challenges you faced, a time you stood up for yourself, etc. Ask to hear their stories.
- Notice their relationships with adult role models. Role models can help teens imagine different roles or options for their future selves. You could ask open ended questions about who they see as role models. Ask what about the role model is appealing to them and why.
- Watch movies or shows with your teen that explore identity issues including race, religion, gender, sexual identity, etc. Then, talk about what you both thought. Some ideas are:
- This fun video is about increasing understanding of “they/them” pronouns.
- Ted Talk called Claiming Your Identity by Understanding Your Self-worth which uses poetry and statistics to discuss equity.
- A popular movie with youth about sexual identity is Love Simon
- Some discussion-provoking movies about race are The Hate U Give and The 13th.
- Or… ask your youth for a suggestion!
What could you do to support your teen’s positive coping methods? Exploring who you are and what you value can be extremely stressful and anxiety provoking. One option is to help your teen (and you!) find coping strategies that work for you.
What can you do to keep the conversations going?
If your teen shares an identity you didn’t expect or may not support, try very hard to react calmly and just listen. If your initial reaction is negative, try to delay a discussion until you feel calmer.
Be open to your teen seeing things differently than you do. Whenever possible, role model having curiosity about opinions that are different from your own.
Key phrases to keep your teen talking about identity issues might include: “Tell me more.”; “I hear you.”; “What else?”
When your teen opens up to you, point out their courage and thank your teen for trusting you enough to share with you.
How might you demonstrate your respect for people who are different from yourself? One option could be building relationships with people who have different identities from your own. Ask open ended questions, in a way that is respectful, to learn more about how they experience the world.
Rules & Boundaries
Ask your teen what boundaries they would like you, and other adults in their live, to follow related to their identity. This might include asking adults to respect pronouns, refrain from comments about identity or gender issues, or to allow various forms of expression.
Let your teen know what boundaries you have around use of slang or offensive terms, and try to start an open dialogue about your beliefs.
Refrain from use of consequences that embarrass your teen or cause them stress, particularly if the consequences are related to identity (such as clothing selection, hairstyle, etc.).
Equity & Inclusion
Teens may experience bullying and harassment from adults and other youth related to their identities. They may also participate in bullying or harassment.
35% gay or lesbian Jeffco high school students report having been bullied at school; 85% of those said they were specifically teased about their gender identity. (2019 Healthy Kids Colorado)
When bullying occurs at school, the school district has a discrimination policy, resources and support for equity related to race/ethnicity.
Jefferson County LGBTQIA+ teens are more likely than peers to experience depression and to attempt suicide. In this webinar, the Trevor Project introduces adults to LGBTQ+ terminologies, to understanding the increased risk of suicide among LGBTQ+ identifying youth, and to learning best practices on supporting LGBTQ+ youth, in general, as well as when they are having thoughts of suicide.
Taking Action in your Community
Reduction of risk factors, and improvements in protective factors, can happen on multiple levels– within an individual, among friends and family, by adjusting systems in places like schools or businesses, and on the policy level for towns, counties or states. When improvements happen on all levels, our teens are most likely to thrive. Here are some policy and systems you and/or your teens might be able to influence:
- Jeffco Communities that Care has efforts that promote positive youth development and healthy relationships.
- Join Jeffco CTC to address local efforts that support youth.
- Having data in our county on youth identity and behaviors helps to bring in resources and support for youth.
- Email the Jeffco Board of Education (see example letter here) to share your support for the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey and Healthy Schools Smart Source to get important information on youth needs in our community.
- Join your School Accountability Committee and ask about using non-academic data and information (e.g., health information, climate survey data, etc.) to guide school improvement efforts and plans.
- Social-emotional learning and health education students receive (including information about comprehensive human sexuality) varies by school.
- Ask your school how they are implementing health education for all students. Ask if the school knows about the district’s Health Education Policy and related resources. Ask/promote your teen to take a high school health education elective.
* Healthy Kids Colorado Survey 2019, Jefferson County data; **Jefferson County CTC Youth Town Hall data 2019, 2020 & 2021.
This resource is maintained with funding from a Coalitions Organizing For Prevention grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a Drug Free Communities Grant from the Centers for Disease Control. The views, policies and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the grant providers.