How Can I Help My Child Develop a Sense of Identity?

The question Who am I? will be asked repeatedly through out the developmental years and beyond. Parents, teachers, coaches, pastors and other mentors will help young people answer that question. 

If you’re worried about your child not being accepted socially or walking away from the faith or not having purpose in life, helping them develop a strong sense of personal identity can help them face these challenges. 

Helping kids find their own identity is a multi-faceted project. 

It’s a transition from the circumstances they were born into to the place where they create a life for themselves. It’s a life long journey but the first eighteen years are foundational.  

I am 55 years old, mother to four and grandmother to five. 

When my kids were little I wasn’t able to give much thought to identity formation. There’s so much that goes into survival in those years. 

Just keeping them safe, warm, fed, clothed, disciplined and reasonably happy was consuming. Then, there was their academic and spiritual training. Not much time left to think about identity formation.

But it makes me pause now. 

Maybe it’s the circuitous route my own life has taken. 

Maybe because I was transported through multiple cultures in my tender years that makes me wonder what impact it had on me. 

But then I realize that every person in the world was born into circumstances not of his own choosing. 

As we grow up we begin to choose. 

At first it’s within the circle we were born into. We choose to befriend some kids and not others on the playground or at lunch. But this happens in a country, culture, language and school that someone else has chosen for us. 

Eventually, we choose activities to pursue and reject others. We become part of groups with similar interests: soccer team, band, drama, art, music, sports, youth group, student leadership.

We identify with these groups and we take on their labels and characteristics. 

When we think of ourselves, we start thinking about how we relate to those groups. I’m a trumpet player. I’m a point guard. I’m the vice president of student council. I’m the lead in the play. I’m an award winning artist. 

In the wider world, our identity springs from our ethnicity, family, gender, cultural expectations and religious affiliation. I’m Cuban. I’m the baby of the family. I’m a Protestant. I celebrate the Fourth of July. 

When we get old enough to choose, we accept or reject what we grew up with. 

We experience identity confusion if we don’t know where we fit in. 

If we’ve experienced various cultures growing up, as I did, we can see the differences between them and make the choice to embrace some parts of culture and reject others. 

Eventually, we become creators of families, groups and cultures. We perpetuate the values and identities we’ve embraced and dismiss the ones we’ve rejected. 

It’s the foundational beliefs that eventually drive our identities and cause us to belong to one group and not another. We take on the values, attitudes and beliefs of one group and not another. 

Meaningful Work

As adults, one of our greatest needs is meaningful work. Help your child find their interests, skills and talents provides the on ramp for their meaningful work as adults. 

Find their Strengths

Don’t teach your kids the lie that they can do anything

They can’t. 

They have limitations and they are uniquely wired to be good at some things but not others. 

Don’t worry about weaknesses. Play to strengths. 

Feeling confident about their strengths will help them accept their weaknesses without shame. 

The whole Strengths Finder brand with books and assessments can help find characteristic qualities that are natural strengths. 

Encourage Activities

Young children need a wide variety of activities

You don’t need to start out with huge investments of time and money. Learn about the field. Start at the beginning. Follow their interests.

Many skills will not be rewarding or fun until some fundamentals are learned. They will need encouragement during the beginning phases to stick with it until some mastery is achieved. 

Choosing activities where there is some natural interest or talent helps. 

Encourage activities where they get unsolicited encouragement from the experts in that area. When our son, Nathan, was in school, he surprised us by winning an art contest. We hadn’t picked up that he had artistic interest or talent, but his art teacher saw it and encouraged it. 

Encourage academic pursuits that follow their curiosity and passions and interests.

Check out books from the library about their interests. 

Give Affirmations

Mirror back to them the strengths that you see in their lives. Help them to see them, too.

Articulate the way you and others see them. 

Learn from Inspirational People

Check books from the library of biographies of interesting people. 

Read biographies to your kids. Start with picture biographies. 

As they get older you can assign inspirational biographies to your kids to read. 

If you need ideas on where to start, read 14 Evocative Christian Biographies and Memoirs.

Loving Relationships

Besides meaningful work, a successful adult is involved in loving relationships that also shape identity. 

Facilitate Friendships

Building strong friendships outside of family relationships is foundational to a sense of identity. Birthday parties, social events at school and church, inviting friends over to the house and safe places for young people to hang out are critical for forming these friendships.

Choosing a church as an adult is another important life skill that’s often overlooked. 

Try Out Different Groups

When you get your child involved in different activities, they naturally fall into groups of other kids in those activities.

Help them understand the communities and groups that they are a part of. Help them choose the subgroups and sub communities that they will be part of. 

Teach them how to build community for themselves. 

This is one of the most critical, but undervalued life skill.What happens when you land a job in a city where you know no one? Who do you call when your car breaks down or you need help moving your couch? Who do you go out with on Friday night? Who helps you when you’re sick? And who are you helping? 

The sitcom Friends certainly had talented actors and writers, but at the heart of the show was young adults looking for community and, ultimately, looking for family.  

Teach Heritage

Talk to them about their family roots and history. 

It’s important for kids to understand their family narrative: where they came from and the values that are important to the family. 

Foundational Beliefs

What we believe about God, ourselves, the world and our place in it impacts our identity. It’s the things we stand for and the causes we believe in.

Identity in Christ

Help them see themselves the way God sees them: valuable, loved and made in the image of God.  

In Christ, they are accepted, secure and significant.  

Neil Anderson of Freedom in Christ Ministries has compiled a list of characteristics of our identity in Christ impacted by biblical principles.

Explore Cultural Identity

Our cultural identity comes into play as well. I’m much more aware of it having lived in different cultures and subcultures.

Talk to them about their cultural and spiritual heritage.

Your ethnic background might be distinct or swallowed up by the surrounding culture. Either way, it impacts your child’s identity. 

Affirm Gender Identity

Opinions on this subject are varied and polarizing, but a critical component of identity is gender and healthy views of sexuality.

Teaching young people is a good time to clarify your own views on the subject.

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