How Relationships Facilitate Teenage Identity Development

Feeling loved and accepted is a vital part of teenage identity development.  Often, a teenager won’t accept herself for who she is.  Instead, she might project this insecurity onto others, creating the feeling that no one accepts her.

A lot of the girls at Sunrise Residential Treatment Center have the same story: they have no idea who they are or what makes them special.  Because they lack an identity, they latch onto extreme habits or actions thinking it will make them whole.

Negative Identity Development

Drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity are some ways that teenage girls try to connect to others. These actions have two main purposes:

  1. Teenagers need to separate themselves from their parents.  This is a healthy and necessary step to building a strong identity.  Unfortunately, teenagers often equate rebellion with separation.  And what comes to mind when teens think about rebellion?  Drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity.
  2. Teens lacking an identity long for connection.  Extreme behaviors fill that void by providing acceptance among people who have a shared desire for rebellion.

For example, a girl can say, “I struggle forming relationships because all I am is an alcoholic!” The girl may be making alcoholism her identity so she doesn’t have to go into the real reason she has relationship problems. The hard part is helping the teenage girl explore the idea that this is not her identity.  Drinking is just what she has chosen to be apart of. This can crush the teens world because she is back to square one searching for an identity. She may even feel that she isn’t loved and accepted.

Positive Teenage Identity Development

This is where the Sunrise staff come in! As staff, we use experiential activities and a lot of self-esteem work to start the process of true identity building.   As soon as a girl is admitted into our program, our staff are getting to know her and learning her story.

We find out what experiential activities that the girl may like, such as running, yoga or singing.  Then we explore activities she has never tried before, like rock climbing, hiking or camping. Our goal is to find an activity that helps the girl feel connected to the other girls, their family, and most importantly, themselves.

If a girl has a passion for music, we will schedule off campus music lessons.  We want to further her knowledge and love of the art.  Or if a girl seems to have rhythm anytime a song comes on, we will look into getting her into a hip hop class with other girls her age.  That way she can connect with others in a way that pushes her outside of her comfort zone.

Sunrise staff are with each girl every step of the way, giving them positive feedback and praise.  The girls at Sunrise aren’t the only ones learning and growing.  If the hike is hard for a girl, it is probably hard for the staff.  Relating back to the student is one of the best ways to connect and share feelings and thoughts.  It also shows the girl that it is okay to do hard things.

A Girl’s Journey of to Find Her Identity

I recently attended the ceremony of a girl as she graduated from Sunrise.  As I sat surrounded by people who love this young woman, I reflected upon her journey.  Her self-esteem was at such a different place than where it was at the beginning. The staff were able to challenge her in activities that she loved and activities that she hadn’t tried before.  This student was able to do so much more than she had ever dreamed of.  She had discovered her identity was more than the drugs she dealt.  She was worth so much more than the attention her ex-boyfriend sometimes gave her.

That climb to the top of the mountain meant that she was capable and that flute recital meant that she also valued herself by sticking with it. The friends that she gained are real supporters who love her and will look after her best interests. Her family sees her true self by how she glows and wants to include them into her world.
This is how the we facilitate teenage identity development at Sunrise.