Help For The Struggling Teenager: A Guide To Common Problems For Parents, Counselors, & Youth Workers
by Rev. V. Lorenzo Johnson, Ph.D.
Presented by Saint Luke Evangelical School Of Biblical Studies

A Struggle For Identity

During World War II, Erik H. Erikson coined a phrase that stuck - identity crisis. He used it to describe the disorientation of shell-shocked soldiers who could not remember their names. Through the years, this phrase has become a useful tool to describe the struggle of growing up.

Achieving a sense of identity is the major developmental task of teenagers. Like a stunned soldier in a state of confusion, sooner or later, young people are hit with a bomb that is more powerful than dynamite – puberty. Somewhere between childhood and maturity, their bodies kick into overdrive and fuel charges at an alarming rate. With this acceleration of physical and emotional growth, they become strangers to themselves. Under attack by an arsenal of fiery hormones, the bewildered begins to ask “Who am I?”

The achievement of a meaningful answer to this lifelong pursuit is the burning challenge of adolescents. According to Erikson, having an identity - knowing who you are - gives adolescents a sense of control that allows them to navigate through the rest of life.

Without identities, awkward adolescents carry a “How am I doing?” attitude that is always focused on their concern about the impression they are making on others. Without self-identities, they will be or do whatever they think others want. They will flounder from one way of acting to another, never able to step outside of a preoccupation with their own performance and genuinely ask others “How are you doing?” Erikson calls this miserable state “identity diffusion.”

The successful formation of self-identity follows a typical pattern. Teens identify with people they admire. Whether in real life or through magazines and TV, they emulate the characteristics of people they want to be like. By the end of adolescence, if all goes as it should, these identifications merge into a unique and coherent whole.

The quest for this identity is scary. Somewhere between twelve and twenty years of age, adolescents are forced to choose once and for all what their identity is to be. It is a formidable task. Uncertain which of their mixed emotions are really their true feelings; they are pushed to make up their minds. Their confusion is complicated further when they begin to guess what others, whose opinions they care about, want them to be.

For adolescents who never achieve an integrated identity, ‘all the world’s a stage.” In their adult years, they will play the part of human beings who change roles to please whoever happens to be watching. Their clothes, their language, their thoughts, and their feelings are all part of the script. Their purpose will be to receive approval from those they hope to impress. Life will become a charade, and the players will never enjoy the security of personal identity or experience the strength that comes from a sense of self-worth.

Four Fundamental Views Of The Self

(1) The subjective self is the adolescents’ private view of who they see themselves to be. Although this self-view has been heavily influenced by parents and has been hammered out by interactions with peers, it is still one’s own assessment.

(2) The objective self is what others see when they view the adolescent. It is the person others think the teen is.

(3) The social self is the adolescents’ perception of themselves as they think others see them. It is what they think they look like to others.

(4) The ideal self is the adolescents’ concept of who they would like to become, their ultimate goal.

How Adolescents Search For Identity

Young people look for identity in uncounted ways. In this section, seven common paths are examined: family relations, status symbols, “grown-up” behavior, rebellion, others’ opinions, idols, and cliquish exclusion.

Family Relations

Adolescents’ families have significant impact on identity and formation. To assert individuality and move out of childhood, teenagers will wean themselves from their protecting parents. But, individuality may also be found in reactions to the identities of brothers and sisters. If the first child, for example, decides to be a serious intellectual, the second may seek individuality by becoming a jokester. Seeing these two places already taken, the third child may choose to be an athlete.

In some cases, when young people feel they possess no distinctive talents, they may rebel by separating themselves from the “white sheep.” They may become delinquents, or prodigals, and gain identity by causing trouble.

Status Symbols

Adolescents try to establish themselves as individuals through prestige. They seek out behavior or possessions that readily observable. They purchase sports cars, hairstyles, letter-men’s jackets, skateboards, guitars, stereos, and designer clothes in hopes of being identified as people who belong. Their status symbols help teens form self-identity because they themselves have what others in their group have: “the jocks,” “the brain,” “the party types,” “the gear-heads,” “the rockers,” etc… Owning status symbols, however, is not enough to achieve identity. Adolescents quickly recognize a struggling teen that is attempting to carve out an identity by buying the right status symbols. In fact, they enjoy detecting those imposters, and reinforcing their own identities by labeling them as “wannabe’s” or “posers.”

To be authentic, appropriate behavior must accompany the status symbol. A “party girl,” for example, must not only wear the right clothes, have the right hairstyle, and buy the right music, but she must also do the things a “party girl” does. Soon the behavior will earn the adolescent a reputation – something she must live up to if she is to maintain her identity, and something she must live down if she is to change it.

“Grown-Up Behavior”

Adolescents have a strong desire to be like adults. The more mature they appear to be, the more recognition they receive and the closer they get to feeling that they have achieved identity. Because real maturity is not always visible, young people often resort to behavior that is symbolic of adults. They engage in tabooed pleasures – the things parents, preachers, and teachers say they are too young to do.

The most common of these tabooed pleasures are smoking, drinking, drugs, and premarital sex. By the time adolescents reach high school, smoking is a widespread practice. Drinking has become a status symbol for girls as well as boys, often beginning in the junior high school years. As with drinking, doing drugs usually begins as a group activity. Recent statistics on the number of sexually active adolescents are staggering. Teens engage in these behaviors to gain independence from family restrictions, to increase their social acceptance, and even for adventure or curiosity. Nearly every adolescent will experiment with these “adult” behaviors at some point, but certain adolescents will struggle immensely in these areas.


Rebellion is a logical consequence of young people’s attempts to resolve incongruent ideas and find authentic identity. Rebellion results from a desire to be unique while still maintaining the security of sameness. “But, Dad, I gotta be a nonconformist,” the teenager said to his father. “How else can I be like the other kids?”

A rebellious attitude is frequently accompanied by an idealism that prompts adolescents to reject the values of family, school, society, and church. However, their oversimplified and unrealistic ideas are often eventually found to be impractical and rarely held for any significant duration.

Others’ Opinions

Essential to identity formation is the validation of one’s self-image by other people’s opinions. Adolescents’ perceptions of themselves change, depending on what they believe others think about them. For example, if a young person sees himself as a talented actor but is not offered a lead role in the school play, his identity as an actor may be weakened and me may try to find his identity in academics or sports. If, however, he hears that others believe it was a mistake not to cast him as the lead, his identity may be maintained.

Adolescents do not always fall in line with what others think of them. On the contrary, because adolescent identity is shaped by their perception of how others see them, they may change to contradict their perception, even if those perceptions are positive. It may be harmful to tell young people they won’t have any problems, that they are the best, or that someday they may be the greatest. Aware of their weaknesses, they feel uncomfortable with an affirmation that leaves no room for error. They will go out of their way to prove parents and counselors wrong and to relieve themselves of the burden of being perfect. For some, relief will come only with what they are least suppose to be, not in being something that in unattainable.


Especially in their early years, adolescents will often over-identify with famous people to the point of apparent loss of their own individuality. In our star-conscious society, literally thousands of rock stars, professional athletes, movie actors, and television personalities are available for teenagers to idolize.

Celebrities become “models” because adolescents are looking for a way to experiment with different roles. In their search for identity, they latch onto a notable personality, in order to explore different aspects of themselves. Idols allow them to test out new behavior and attitudes before incorporating them into their behavior. Idolizing celebrities does not necessarily mean that adolescents endorse these idols’ lifestyles or values.

Cliquish Exclusion

In their search for identity, adolescents may become remarkably intolerant and even cruel as they exclude others on the basis of minor aspects such as dress. They persistently try to define, over-define, and redefine themselves in relation to others. If they see something in peers that remind them of what they don’t want to be, they will scorn and avoid those people and not feel an ounce of remorse. Teens strengthen themselves through ruthless comparisons and persistent exclusions.

Erikson sees the cliquishness of adolescents and its intolerance of difference as a defense against identity confusion. Usually, in their late teen years, adolescents realize that it takes a well-established identity to tolerate radical differences.

Why Adolescents Struggle

The establishment of a personal identity is not easy. The danger of identity confusion lurks around every bend. Erikson points out that some confused young people, as in the case of Hamlet, take an excessively long time to reach adulthood. They may regress into a childish state and thus avoid having to make decisions on confusing issues. Other adolescents express their confusion through premature commitments and impulsive actions. They give themselves to poorly thought-out ways being and end up fighting needless battles.

Adolescence is a period of stress and turmoil for many young people. While the difficulties that occur in adolescence are due in part to a lack experience, at least five common experiences may exacerbate or create significant struggles: physical, sexual, social, religious, and moral changes.

Physical Changes

A fourteen year old tried to excuse his poor report card by saying “My problem is not tests, but testosterone.” He had a legitimate argument. The biochemical changes in adolescence may cause more apprehension than studying for an exam. Waking up to pimples, having your voice crack in public, wearing new jeans that are too short, growing new facial hair, or beginning menstruation and breast development are all traumatic. As hormones set in motion the chain of physiological events that usher in adulthood, nice kids seem to turn into moody, rebellious adolescents. In fact, some parents, with well-behaved teenagers, worry that their kids aren’t developing properly.

Sexual Changes

As the adolescent’s body begins to take on the characteristic shape of his or her sex, new behaviors, thoughts, and physiological processes occur. Each reacts to the cultural stereotype of sexual changes. The adolescent boy encounters locker-room comparisons and all that implies, or wonder why he hasn’t begun to shave yet. If he gets excited while dancing with a girl, or while reading or merely thinking, he may suffer from a sense that his body has betrayed him. He might resent the lack of control he has over his body and feel that he is “doing something wrong.”

The adolescent girl also experiences confusion and shame about her sexual maturation. Menstruation is a serious concern, often compounded by fear and ignorance. It may cause physical discomfort, weight gain, headaches, mood swings, and so on. Because it is more commonly referred to as ‘the curse,” a girls period may encourage her to play the passive role of a martyr. It is not surprising that even the anticipation of this change contributes to other common struggles.

Social Changes

While the biological changes of puberty are dramatic, they are no more significant than the social changes that occur during adolescence. Between the sixth and eighth grade, the structure of school becomes a very different experience. Most young adolescents move, from a relatively small neighborhood elementary school, to a much larger and more impersonal junior high school. This move has many social ramifications. It disrupts the old peer-group structure, exposes the students to different achievement expectations by teachers, and provides new opportunities for different extracurricular activities.

Family relations also shift as boys and girls turn into teenagers. Conflicts in family discussions increase. Male adolescents become more dominant in conversations, especially with their mothers. Feelings of affection towards their parents’ declines from sixth to eighth grade. This does not mean it necessarily becomes negative, but that the change is from very positive to less positive.

Religious Changes

Contrary to popular opinion, adolescents are genuinely interested in religion and feel that it plays an important role in their lives. In The Search For America’s Faith, George Gallup, Jr., and David Poling report that eighty-eight percent of today’s teens say their religious beliefs affect their daily behavior.

However, adolescence is a time when young people question the religious concepts and beliefs of their childhood. They may become skeptical of religious forms, such as prayer, and later begin to doubt the nature of God. However, they are on a genuine spiritual quest. This is sometimes mistakenly interpreted as skepticism or doubt. In reality, it is sincere questioning. Adolescents investigate their religion, to make their own faith, rather than that of their parents.

They question, not because they want to become agnostic or atheist, but because they want to accept religion in a way that is meaningful to them. Still, the quest is often frightening, and the search for faith may lead to involvement in destructive religious cults or other potential problems.

Moral Changes

An important occurs in adolescents when they realize that their behavior must conform to social expectations without the constant guidance, supervision, and threats of punishment they experienced as children. To become adults, they must replace specific childhood rules with their own moral principles.

Several basic changes occur in the moral thinking of adolescents:

(1) They become more abstract and less concrete.

(2) They become more concerned with what is right and less concerned with what is wrong.

(3) They become more cognitive and less emotional.

(4) They become more philanthropic and less egocentric.

(5) They become more willing to exert emotional energy on moral issues.

During adolescence, according to Lawrence Kohlberg, teens reach a stage of moral development that is based on respect for others rather than on personal desires. While adolescents are intellectually capable of this change and creating their own moral code, the task is difficult. Every day adolescents see inconsistencies in moral standards. As they interact with peers of different religious, racial, or socioeconomic backgrounds, they recognize that people have different codes of right and wrong. Some fail to make the shift to adult morality during adolescence and must the task in early adulthood.

Others not only fail to make the shift but build a moral code on socially unacceptable moral concepts. Physical, sexual, social, religious, and moral changes all contribute to potential complications and possible problems.

What Adolescents Do With Their Struggles

It is difficult to predict exactly how a specific adolescent will attempt to manage his or her problems. A number of personality traits and environmental factors influence the struggling adolescent’s coping style. There are, however, at least three common ways young people contend with their struggles. They will hold them in, act them out, or work them through.

Hold Them In

Many adolescents cope with difficulties by keeping them to themselves. Like Adam and Eve hiding in the bushes, these adolescents camouflage their struggles, hoping they will eventually disappear. Some adolescents conceal their anxiety by blocking - allowing unconscious conflicts to interrupt their flow of thought. Tony, for example, is troubled by having sexual fantasies about girls he was assigned to work with in his social studies class. At the dinner table, he began to tell his parents about the project. He gets confused and “forgets” what it is.

Another way adolescents hide their problems is through sublimation - transforming impulses that are unacceptable into behaviors that are more socially acceptable. Angry at his alcoholic father, a young man might disguise his hostility by investing a tremendous amount of energy into basketball.

Adolescents who feel hurt sometimes hide their struggle through emotional insulation - keeping potential pain at bay. For example, Carla, a junior in high school, has just been asked to the prom by the boy of her dreams. In order to avoid any possibility of being disappointed, she feels no excitement or joy. She becomes numb for fear that he might drop her at the last minute.

Related to emotional insulation is intellectualization - interpreting a situation only at a cognitive level in order to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings. When asked how he was doing, after being cut from the school drama tryouts, Ken, who actually hurt very deeply, responds “I think its all for the best. God is in charge and He is really teaching me to be a better person through this. It is probably the best thing that could have happened to me.”

Perhaps the most common form of hiding one’s struggles is through repression - pushing thoughts, feelings impulses, desires, or memories out of the mind. Take Mike, seventeen, who has grown up in the church and is sincerely seeking to answer some of life’s difficult questions. He begins to doubt God’s existence, but quickly forces his attention, on this doubt from his mind, because it is “bad.” Later, this repressed doubt shows up again as an inability to be genuine with other feelings. He fails to show normal expressions and becomes legalistic in his spirit.

Act Them Out

Some adolescents cope with struggles by acting out - expressing their feelings through impulsive actions to reduce tension. The anxiety they feel about failing a class, for example, is temporarily released through skipping classes, harassment, or vandalism. The tension they feel over not being accepted by their peers may be acted out through sexual promiscuity. Adolescents act out in several different ways.

Young people will sometimes act out their struggle by displacement - transferring feelings to a more neutral object. If Wendy, fourteen, is denied her desire to stay out with her friends past midnight, she may regress to childish behavior and relieve some of her frustration by sulking, crying, or throwing temper tantrums.

Adolescents who are afraid of their own thoughts or impulses may act them out through projection - putting them into another person. Neal, a sixteen-year-old “jock,” becomes convinced that his Craig is a homosexual. To ward fear of his own sexuality, Neal transfers his own sexuality onto Craig and acts out his anger by ridiculing him in front of other teammates.

Another common way of warding off uncomfortable emotions is through denial - refusing to accept reality. Wayne, seventeen, does this by partying. Regardless of the problems: poor grades, a broken home, depression, anger, and so on, Wayne denies the reality of his pain through two words: “party dude!” He avoids having to face up to his struggles by simply pretending they don’t exist. “Celebrating” by truant behavior, hanging out at the park, and drinking.

Work Them Through

Adolescents who hide their struggles and the ones who act them out have at least one characteristic in common. Both are avoiding responsibility – the freedom consciously to choose their actions and attitudes. Both are hung up, on some level, on thinking that says, “Why don’t they …?” In other words, both suffer from a tendency to wonder why others do not resolve their own problems. William Glasser sees this lack of responsibility as the central cause of adolescents’ struggles and even juvenile delinquency. He claims that young people have problems in proportion to the degree they avoid taking responsibility for their actions and/or attitudes.

By holding their struggles in, or acting them out, adolescents avoid having to confront them head-on. It’s not that they do not have the capacity to take responsibility. Most psychologists agree with the development expert Jean Piaget, that, by adolescence, young people are moving beyond concrete thinking and reaching a stage he calls “formal operations.” They are able to look past what seems unchangeable, weed out irrelevant issues, and consider ramifications of choices they were unable to consider as children. Adolescents are capable of understanding the present and imagining the future. They can think abstractly and consider the consequences of their actions. Adolescents have the capacity to say, “The trouble with me is me, and I am going to do something about it.”

Like most abilities, responsibility is best seen on a continuum. There are extreme cases of psychosis when people are unable to recognize that they have a choice. For example, the paranoid schizophrenic who believes someone is out to get him believes he can do absolutely nothing to change his situation.

At the other extreme, some take on too much responsibility. They are the ones who feel guilty about things for which they have no responsibility. For example, the teenager who feels guilty about her father’s death because she was away at school when he died.

The majority of young people, however, are somewhere between these extremes. Lead them to see that they are sometimes responsible for the things that happen to them and that, even when they aren’t, they are free to choose attitudes that will help them transcend debilitating struggles.

copyright 2003 by Rev. V. Lorenzo Johnson, Ph.D.
Used by permission.