Q: My son is an “emo.” Should I be worried?
A: Subcultures of youth culture develop around musical styles, political positions, fashion trends, ethnic groups, and sex and gender roles. “Emo” stems from the word “emotional,” and is a broad title that covers many different styles of emotionally-charged punk rock and the more light-hearted pop-influenced music that emerged from this, along with its associated fashion. Emo fashion tends to feature heavy black eye makeup for both boys and girls, skinny jeans, and dyed black hair in a particular style: long bangs brushed over to one side, sometimes completely covering one eye. As part of developing his identity your son has chosen to associate himself with the overt expression of emotion through this style of music and fashion. He might have chosen to grow his hair long and listen to heavy metal, or cut his hair short, play sports, and drink a lot of beer. This is one possible identity among many, but if your son is otherwise getting on with his life, education, friends and his family, there is no reason to be worried.

There is a reported darker side to the emo genre that associates some young people with self-harm. It is possible that these interests can be powerful and dangerous to vulnerable people who are seeking to address deeper psychological problems through this subculture. Communication is the key. By talking to your son about his music, and about being part of this particular group, you will be able to gauge whether there is any need for concern. Remember that he is expressing his individuality through this identity, so don’t treat him as a stereotype.

Q: My daughter has a chronic illness. How can I help her develop normally, like other teens?
A: The key is to focus on all the other aspects of your daughter as well as her illness, which will inevitably be a defining influence on her. It’s a tricky balancing act, and you can’t deny the fact of her ill health—others may need to know about it and it will have had an enormous impact on your relationship and your communication. However, she is so much more than her illness. An illness is not an identity, but her response to being chronically ill is a manifestation of her personality. Her courage, her rage, and her humor are all part of her identity. If you look beyond the illness, you will see the normal adolescent-development process and her search for an identity.

Encourage her to be as adventurous as she wants to be, to entertain the same hopes and dreams as everyone else. But do impose boundaries when lines are crossed. She needs and deserves the same guidance as any other adolescent. If she takes on extreme causes or a radical fashion style, she may be challenging you and the world, to see if you treat her differently from her healthy siblings and peers. She may be insulted and incensed by this double standard. Or she may take advantage of your soft-heartedness. If, for example, you don’t want your daughter to have multiple piercings, don’t give in because you feel sorry for her or guilty that she suffers from a chronic health condition. Tell her that you don’t want her to spoil her beautiful skin and regret it when she is older. Your concern will make her feel valued, even if her first reaction is anger.

Q: My 16-year-old son isn’t very manly. Does this mean he’s going to be gay?
A: Society seems to be much more tolerant of girls who enjoy doing things typically thought of as male interests and activities, than it is of boys getting involved in traditionally female activities. Girls doing motorcycle maintenance is considered refreshing and cool, while boys doing needlework is not.

The first consideration is what you and your family think of as manly. If it is that he is interested in more traditionally female activities, this preference would seem to have little to do with sexual orientation, but rather shows a sensitive, gentle character who likes making things rather than throwing balls or play fighting. If he likes style and fashion, designs his own clothes, spends hours doing his hair, and wears a little makeup, he may be creative and artistic, but this still does not tell us anything about his sexuality. Rather than measure him against your particular standard of manliness, try to pay attention to his interests and give him recognition for his talents. It’s possible that your concerns about his identity are getting in the way of your relationship with him.

Q: My child’s sense of style is very odd. Is this okay?
A: Experimenting with clothes, makeup, and hair is one of the enjoyable aspects of feeling, and wanting to look, more grown-up. Your daughter’s new shape gives her the excuse she needs to change her image but, like any experimentation, she may occasionally misjudge her look. However, if you think your child regularly dresses inappropriately, talk it over with her. Try not to suggest she gives a cheap or trashy impression as this will only confirm that you don’t understand her or her look.

Instead, take a moment to think about what she’s trying to achieve with her appearance and support her in expressing her individuality. Remind her to match her clothes to where she is going and what she’s doing. For example, if she’s going to school she needs to abide by the school dress code, but at parties or on vacation she can have more opportunities to dress up or look different.

Lesbian and gay adolescents

The process of forming a sexual identity is begun at conception, but gay and lesbian adolescents generally do not identify themselves privately until they are about 15, and publicly until 16 years old. At first they just feel different from their same-sex peers. Then, when puberty is established, they find that they are attracted to same-sex peers, with all the confusion and upset that comes with such a realization. At some point after this, they will reveal their feelings to chosen family and friends.

Parents may react with initial shock and denial, and a sense of loss of an expected future of traditional marriage and family. To move beyond this requires courage, honesty, love, and a desire to maintain close family bonds. Remember that gay relationships can be just as rewarding as heterosexual ones. Although your child may never get married in the traditional sense to a partner of the opposite sex, same-sex couples can still be a family and have children, either via adoption or donation (for lesbians). As a parent, it is likely that you had an idea that your son was different in some way. Think about the anguish he may have been through and the courage it has taken for him to come out. Keep your communication going whatever your sense of personal hurt. Adolescence is hard enough: Being gay will inevitably present extra challenges for him. What he needs is your support and acceptance, in whatever identity he chooses.


Our identity is formed by our sense of personal uniqueness and the recognition we get from people who matter

Forming an identity Development in the teen years

The physical, psychological, moral, and social developmental advances in teenagers allow and shape the mixture of personality characteristics, beliefs, and values that makes up identity.

Crisis or development?

The belief that this process is a “crisis” is not really accurate, but there is no doubt that adolescents go through stages of identity development. Teenagers may experiment with different possible identities: the practical joker at home, the quiet studious pupil at school, the day-dreaming delivery boy. He gradually settles for a good fit between his future career, his ideological values (whether they be political, religious, or philosophical), and his sexual role. This process can go on well into adulthood, and although some adolescents seem to simply take on the roles and values of their parents, others are still changing and developing in their twenties.

Peer influence

The influence of friends is a crucial part of this process. Learning to make close friendships and romantic/sexual relationships helps to define and reflect who they are. Teens typically go for good looks and nice clothes, but they also admire a good person. All those hours on the telephone or online with friends they have only just left at school are for exploring what others are like and, therefore, what they themselves are like. So give them time and space to experiment with who they are.

The role of parents

Despite the influence of friends, the parents’ role in this process is actually very important. It is the bedrock upon which a healthy self-image and identity is formed. Parents should expect age-appropriate behavior and place reasonable limits on their teenagers, but be open to reasonable change. This will encourage healthy identity and self-esteem.

For example, enforce a curfew… within reason: Parents who allow the occasional, negotiated late night over the weekend are likely to produce a responsible young adult. On the other hand, families with lax rules and an indulgent style tend to produce children with irresponsible and immature attitudes. Authoritarian families produce dependency in their offspring that can be the precursor of psychological difficulties and disorders underpinned by poor self-esteem.

The influence of peers is important for identity, so give your child time and space to develop friendships.

Discovering attractive and unattractive traits in others helps your teen to discover something about herself.

Set boundaries but be prepared to compromise if your child shows you can trust her.

Idealism and realism Gaining values and beliefs

Before he had the capacity to think maturely about responsibilities and obligations, your teenager probably thought of right and wrong as the difference between avoiding punishments and getting rewards. As he gets older he starts to question society’s values, and may decide that in his view they are morally questionable. He also begins to consider the impact of his own behavior on others. He may feel very strongly about globalization, stem-cell research, or intensive farming, and consider his own values morally superior. He will often feel very strongly about issues of justice and injustice and be critical of his parents’ apparent “hypocrisy.”

Still a child?

On the other hand, he may not help with the recycling or treat his younger sister with much humanity, and you may think that, far from being a principled young man, he is in fact just a self-centered and confused child. Actually, he may be both. In this time of growth and change in his knowledge about himself and the world, he may express clear moral judgments about some things and yet be very focused on his own personal goals in other situations.

There is no harm in gently pointing out that charity begins at home while engaging in an ideological debate about the third world. But there is no need to crush his new-found values in the process of insisting on family rules and beliefs.

Avoiding hypocrisy

As ever, parents who set a good example by treating each other and family members justly and who approach their role in their communities responsibly, will stand a better chance of seeing this behavior in their children. Unfortunately, moral development in adolescence has a particularly sensitive nose for hypocrisy. Parents need to be able to justify their decisions rationally and be able to be challenged on their own values and identity.

Emerging morals

As they grow, teenagers are likely to start to question society’s values and develop strong opinions on the various controversial issues they read about in the news.

Do I have to clean up?

While your child may be very vocal about global issues, he might not care much about family values or helping with chores. Do encourage him to develop values that reflect both of these areas.

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