By Melody M. Ott
LCSW with Wellbeing Collective
I was recently in a session with a teen, and she shared that she and her mother were in a disagreement because her mother did not want her to label herself. It was easy to see both sides of this disagreement and our discussion led to an enlightening conversation about labels. You see, I am a middle-aged mom. When I was growing up, a label was as permanent as spray-painting your name on the water tower! Getting a label of any kind would follow you right through high school and beyond. Labels were not a good thing, at least not in my experience or upbringing.
Today, though, teens and their peers seem to feel very differently about labels. I am sure this is not a one size fits all phenomenon, but recently, it has been the topic of conversation in many of my sessions with teens and their parents. The goal is not to determine if labels are good or bad, but simply to explore and understand the use of labels and how teens are using them to discover who they are in this often confusing world.
Today’s teens are just like teens of my generation. Like we did, teens today are trying to discover who they are. They will do just about anything to fit in. They need boundaries but don’t like them, they feel insecure and uncertain about their identity. Teens are in a period of major brain development, and they are trying to figure life out. BUT teens of this generation are also different from the teens of my generation. They have access to information instantly (I relied on the encyclopedia and the Dewey decimal system). They have an almost insatiable appetite for connection via social media and much of their identity and self-worth seems to be created in this space. They also report feeling more isolated and lonelier than ever before. Kids are desperate for a sense of identity and I am learning that labels are helping them figure out different aspects of who they are.
So what can parents do to help? I often say to teens, “I have a nose but would not introduce myself as nose”. After I say this I usually get a giggle, but the truth is that while labels can be helpful in understanding ourselves, one part of yourself doesn’t make the whole of who you are. In my work with teens, labels are okay with me; however, I am never going to focus exclusively on one small part of who someone is. My goal is to nurture a sense of self and develop self-worth by exploring and developing the many parts of each person. As parents, we can encourage our children to do this as well. This might include a label or two or three, but it also includes exploring the full self because none of us can ever fit completely into one label – we are too unique and amazing for that!
So next time your teen puts a label on themselves, take a breath. Remember that these labels are fluid and can be helpful in self-discovery. Listen. Be supportive. Guide lovingly. Encourage them to explore their entire self and maybe even make a list of all of the different aspects of who they are (sibling, child, friend, student, artist, athlete…). Labels can be helpful as long as we do not allow them to box us in. After all, just like their parents before them, today’s teens are simply trying to learn who they are – and I think they are pretty great!