The life narratives of young people significantly impact their motivational profile as responsible agents and owners of their choices and actions. Duke University professor of philosophy Owen Flanagan defines life narratives as “imposing continuity on those salient experiences that serve to define the individual and enable persons to understand themselves and to be re-identified as the same entity over time.” The experiences that provide meaning to young people are framed by an amalgamation of lived experiences and memories. An adolescent’s assumed identity will be based on how well they have been prepared to process the sum of the identifications, real or perceived, superimposed on them by the common societal narratives within their community. The continuous and constant messages they receive influence the decisions and choices they make about who they are (identity) and how they feel about themselves (introspections).
Identity and introspection play a significant role in determining the self-conception and value adolescents ascribe to themselves. Identities are composed of self-identity, cultural and racial identity, collective identity, and identity in Christ. David Jopling defines identities as “the repositories for much of what we absorb in the world and are filters through which our lived experience is processed and interpreted.” Introspections are composed of self-awareness, self-understanding, self-experience, self-respect, self-worth, self-evaluation and self-verification. Ulric Neisser defines introspections as “levels of consciousness of oneself as the subject captured through self-specifying information from differing origins and social experiences.”
Youth are active agents in a broad ecology of relationships and every adult brings or provides different sets of social supports. Author Bonnie Benard, credited with creating the Resiliency Framework, says, “Studies have shown that caring and support are the most powerful adolescent development tools because they address a shared humanity and transcend ethnic, social class, geographical, and historical boundaries. It is the need for love, respect, connectedness, meaningful involvement and belonging.” Social support can be defined as “an individual’s perceptions of general support or specific supportive behaviors (available or enacted upon) from people in their social network which enhances functioning and/or may buffer them from adverse outcomes.” The development of resilience is disrupted when social location, social interaction, and individual experiences challenge normal youth development.
Protective factors such as family support system, a good educational environment, a church home, after school activities and sports play a role in helping youth overcome the potential negative effects associated with experiences and interactions faced in their community. The National Research Council defines protective factor as “a characteristic at the biological, psychological, family, or community (including peers and culture) level that is associated with a lower likelihood of problem outcomes or that reduces the negative impact of a risk factor on problem outcomes.” While the parents and family members have the primary responsibility for providing the protective factors to overcome risk, on a symbolic or experiential level, mentors are an important contributor to the adolescent through their relational activities. Researcher Dennis Roedder says, “Relationships socialize youth and subsequently encourage identity development.” The adolescent’s development and ability to process their experiences depends on trustworthy interactions with the adults, peers, and community in which they reside. Erik Erickson says, “Identity formation employs a process of simultaneous reflection and observation, a process taking place on all levels of mental functioning, by which the individual judges himself in the light of what they perceives to be the way in which others judge them in comparison to themselves.”
When provided the tools to grapple jointly with developing a resilient response to their challenges, youth can use societal challenges as motivation to fuel their destiny rather than as roadblocks that lead them in a negative direction. Some use things like academics, athletics, or the arts as agency and motivation to succeed and disprove the narrative. For others, their awareness of societal inconsistencies overwhelms their identity development. The constant internal negotiation of their identity, contextualized by their surrounding conditions, can lead to the conscious choice of an oppositional stance in order to survive. They ignore the real consequences of embracing a high-risk lifestyle as they internalize mounting frustrations and make life-altering decisions to define who they are by what they are against.
Well-formed identities can only be incrementally changed by social context and relationships. Youth make thousands of decisions each day in response to their understanding of their experiences; each decision having a cumulative effect on their future. Their experiences lead to a need to share not only their hopes, dreams, and experiences but also their questions, disappointments, and fears while depending on adults to help them discern unspoken moods and desires to ensure proper decision making and implementation. Never stop speaking and living truth into their lives, but don’t be surprised if they don’t immediately care to hear or embrace what you are saying. On one hand our youth are living lives that create a common source of conflict about their future:
- They don’t know where they are;
- They don’t know where they are going;
- They don’t know when they will get there;
- They don’t want to be told what they should be doing;
- They are in a great hurry to go somewhere.
While at the same time they are moldable, tender, wanting guidance; capable of great loyalty and commitment. When youth have no vision to see down the road, they don’t know how to live their lives. Their present has meaning only when they see the purpose and plan of their future.
The imperatives of how adults respond are based on the indicatives of who they are and the order is not reversible. In other words, what we think or believe about someone will determine how we define them, which will influence the way we treat them. Charged with providing developmental guidance to young people, we are called to seek the knowledge and understanding to become culturally attuned and prepared to support the challenges of identity development. Youth need adults to understand them and invest time to build relationships. Human nature is relational by definition. Relationships shape understandings, expectations, desires, and ideas about what is possible. We all can thrive in relational communities. The importance of this is that experiences affect their self-concept; self-concept is key to an achieved identity and social location plays a significant role in authenticating one’s self-concept. If we can compassionately accompany young people as their identities are amplified, challenged and rearranged by adolescent experiences then their identity will be secure and their decisions and choices will move them in a positive direction toward their DESTINY. Youth just need support and direction. Who knows, we may be helping the next doctor, lawyer, business owner or president.