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Developing Values, Goals, & Identity

5 Facts About Identity Development in Adolescence

During adolescence, we start to form a deeper sense of who we are, what we value, and who we want to be. We become increasingly sensitive to social feedback and better able to think in abstract and complex ways that help us build a deeper sense of self around these questions related to identity. We think more about what it means to be a member of our particular social or cultural group or groups.

Healthy development in adolescence involves creating a positive sense of self and belonging, based on our values and aspirations. This process can be challenging if we are facing racism, sexism, and other forms of bias and discrimination, which too often causes us to be defined by others in ways that are grounded in negative or otherwise limiting stereotypes.

Adults can support this process of healthy identity development by providing opportunities for identity exploration, affirming expressed identities, and ensuring access to messages and feedback that support pride in one’s racial and or gender or other identities.

What the research tells us about forming our sense of identity during adolescence:

  • During adolescence, our brains mature in ways that help us better understand others’ perspectives and also make us more sensitive to social feedback.

  • Our sense of identity can impact the choices we make. For example, if we see ourselves as a hard-working student, we may skip that party to stay home and study.

  • Adolescence is also a key window for understanding our racial-ethnic and sexual identities. Messages that support pride in these parts of our identity are important to our wellbeing.

  • To build a positive sense of identity, we need opportunities to explore our place in the world, set our own goals, and determine how we want to be seen–without being defined by others through negative stereotypes.

Adolescence is an important period for exploring who we are, what we value, and who we want to be. Over the course of our adolescent years, we develop a more integrated, stable sense of our identity that we carry with us into adulthood.

As our cognitive abilities mature, we’re able to think in more complex, abstract ways that help us engage in self-reflection on a deeper level. Regions in our brain associated with perspective taking, decision making, self-regulation, and values become more active when we’re evaluating ourselves in relation to others, especially in social contexts. In addition, we become more sensitive to social stimuli, increasing the effects of feedback from our family, peers, communities and media on shaping our identity.

Our sense of identity is more than just who we are–it also affects what we do. Throughout adolescence, our sense of identity increasingly influences the decisions we make. Research suggests that we value behaviors more when they fit with our sense of identity. For example, if we feel strongly about our identity as a good student, we may choose to skip a party the night before a big test.

Healthy development involves creating a positive sense of self and belonging that includes our sense of racial, ethnic, and gender identity. Adolescence is a key window for exploring these parts of ourselves, as our increasing cognitive abilities and social awareness help us form a deeper understanding of our racial-ethnic identity. Positive feelings about our racial and ethnic identity are associated with psychological wellbeing and even serve as a buffer against external stressors. For youth of color, positive identity formation supports emotional adjustment, academic outcomes, and health. For sexual minority youth, a positive sense of identity is protective against depression and make LGBQ youth more likely to form supportive friendships with other sexual minority youth.

Our increased motivation to explore and take risks during adolescence is also tied to identity development, allowing us to try out different interests, “selves,” and roles within our peer groups, families, and community. Inequities resulting from poverty as well as discrimination within systems and by adult “gatekeepers” can limit opportunities to safely explore and reduce options related to school and work.

During adolescence, we need the agency to explore our place in the world, to set our own goals, and to determine how we want to be seen–and to have leeway to change these over time. The challenge for Black youth in particular and other youth from historically stigmatized groups is that oftentimes they are being defined by others in ways that are grounded in negative stereotypes.

As adults, we can help create opportunities for youth to explore roles and activities that can help them determine what they value and who they want to become. We can also ensure access to images and messages that affirm and support pride in our racial and or gender or other identities.

What the research tells us about programs to support a positive sense of identity during adolescence:

  • Youth need safe environments–in leadership positions, sports, or extracurricular activities–where they can explore their sense of self as an individual and within their community.

  • Programs that focus on supporting Black adolescents’ feelings of racial and ethnic pride have been shown to develop a positive sense of identity and reduce negative risk taking.

  • Accepting spaces where LGBTQ youth can learn about things like self-acceptance, bullying, and dating can boost self-esteem and social support and lower depressive symptoms.

  • Sports and recreation are also environments where young people can build a sense of social identity, which is associated with increased self-worth and better social skills.

A growing body of research has examined ways that adults and communities can provide spaces for adolescents to explore their identities and develop their personal values.

Racial and Ethnic Identity

The Identity Project was designed to encourage adolescents to explore their ethnic-racial backgrounds and help them understand how that fits with their overall sense of self. High school students in this program were first introduced to basic concepts like race, ethnicity, and discrimination. Then they participated in activities aimed at supporting their sense of ethnic-racial identity, such as making a family tree and interviewing someone who shares their ethnic-racial identity.

Youth who completed the program not only had a better sense of their racial-ethnic identity, their self-esteem and grades improved and symptoms of depression decreased. Findings from the Identity Project demonstrate that providing space for young people to explore their identity can benefit both their psychological and academic adjustment.

While programs like the Identity Project were designed for all youth, researchers have also examined programs that target specific groups of adolescents, such as Black youth. Given the history of discrimination in the U.S. that has created challenges and barriers for Black youth, researchers have developed programs that focus on supporting Black adolescents’ feelings of racial and ethnic pride.

For example, the Young Empowered Sisters is a school-based program for Black adolescent girls that works to increase awareness of racism, promote identity exploration, and encourage civic activism. Other programs, like the Strong African American Families Program, focus on building strong family and community ties to develop youths’ values, increase positive feelings about their racial identity, and reduce risky behaviors. A review of programs that focus on Black adolescent identity exploration found that these programs are not only developing youths’ positive sense of identity, they also can promote positive developmental outcomes, such as by improving parent-child relationships and reducing negative risk taking.

Gender and Sexuality

Although few programs have specifically targeted adolescents’ exploration of gender identity and sexual orientation, evidence suggests that such programs can benefit young people. For example, the weekly support group program, Hatch Youth, connects LGBTQ+ adolescents with other LGBTQ+ peers and mentors to provide a supportive environment where youth can learn about topics such as self-acceptance, coming out, bullying, and dating. Adolescents who frequently attended Hatch Youth meetings had higher levels of self-esteem, greater social support, and fewer depressive symptoms than adolescents who only attended a few meetings.

Similarly, Queer Sex Ed, an online sexual health intervention tailored to LGBTQ+ adolescents, found that youth who participated in the online sexual education program showed improvements in self-acceptance and feelings of belonging. Research suggests that supportive school climates–those that have Gay-Straight Alliances, health curricula for LGBTQ youth, anti-bullying policies, and staff trainings on creating a LGBTQ-supportive environment–are strongly associated with LGBTQ+ youths’ wellbeing. Additional research is needed to help us understand how we can create strong programs that support and affirm adolescents’ sexual and gender identity.

Identities Within Schools and Communities

During adolescence, we develop a sense of identity within our schools and communities. Programs that provide youth with opportunities to find their role in their community can have positive impacts on development. For example, Youth Empowerment Solutions (YES) is an after school program for middle school students that focuses on boosting leadership skills, embracing cultural identity, and creating change for their communities. Adolescents who participated in the afterschool program had greater feelings of empowerment and reported more prosocial behavior (that is, behavior intended to help others).

Sports and recreation are also environments where youth can build a sense of social identity, which is associated with increased self-worth and better social skills. Substantial research has also connected extracurricular activities with positive youth development by contributing to young people’s sense of identity as a member of a group or community. Youth need safe environments–in leadership positions, sports, or extracurricular activities–where they can explore their sense of self as an individual and within their community.

Following are examples of studies that have examined the kind of programs that promote a positive sense of identity.

The Identity Project

The Identity Project is an 8-week school-based program designed to help adolescents explore their ethnic-racial identity and examine how that identity fits with their overall sense of self. Adolescents in the ninth grade were assigned to participate either in the Identity Project or in a comparison condition where they learned about career opportunities after high school.

Program facilitators provided lessons on basic concepts such as race, ethnicity, stereotypes, and discrimination, and led discussions on how various groups have been marginalized throughout history. Adolescents participated in activities aimed at developing their racial-ethnic identity, like making a family tree, interviewing someone who shared their ethnic-racial identity, and creating a storyboard. They learned from others’ perspectives and discussed how even people who share the same racial-ethnic identity can have many differences and unique perspectives.

At the end of the 8 sessions, youth who participated in the program had a better sense of their identity, higher self-esteem, and fewer depressive symptoms. Their grades also improved, showing that increasing adolescents’ ethnic-racial identity can have benefits not only for psychological adjustment, but also for academic success.

Strong African-American Families (SAAF)

Strong African American Families (SAAF) is a family-centered intervention aimed at strengthening adolescents’ relationships with their parents and preventing risky behavior. Through interactive games, discussions, and role playing activities, youth worked through topics such as setting goals, developing their sense of identity, understanding their values, and handling peer pressure. Parents completed separate activities on ways to support their childrens’ development. Youth and their parents also attended joint sessions focused on working together, staying connected, and supporting the young people’s goals.

Analyses of SAAF suggest that the program is effective in reducing risky sexual behavior, decreasing substance use, reducing behavioral problems, and increasing positive racial identity. These findings suggest that family-centered interventions that promote youths’ identity formation may have positive impacts on adolescent development.

Youth Empowerment Solutions

Youth Empowerment Solutions (YES) is an empowerment-based after school program for middle schoolers. The program content is designed to bolster adolescents’ leadership skills and confidence, create strong community ties, promote cultural identity and appreciation of others’ cultural identities, and create plans for community change. Youth in the program are provided the opportunity to design and implement a community change project, such as a neighborhood cleanup or community garden.

Research suggests that participating in YES activities was related to greater psychological empowerment, which in turn was related to more prosocial behavior and less antisocial behavior. The YES program offers evidence that providing adolescents the opportunity to find roles for themselves within their community can have positive influences on their development.

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