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Do Millennial Teenagers Seek Authenticity?

Being authentic can be scary. What if I am different to the others around me? What if they judge me? What if they reject me?

These are the questions that go on in our heads when we are choosing whether to be authentic or not. One of our greatest needs is to belong and this often drives our decisions in these moments.

The truth is, the feeling of true belonging comes from our acceptance of ourselves as we are. It is when WE accept who we are, that we get a sense of belonging with others. And this is the starting point to authenticity.

In the phase of self discovery in teenage years, teenagers seek authenticity because they inherently know that this is what will lead them to a strong sense of self. Unfortunately the fears of everyone around them not acting authentically results in confusion and self-doubt. That is why one of our most important roles as parents is to model this self-acceptance and authenticity for our children and teenagers. When they see we have the courage to do so, that inspires them to do the same.

So, what is authenticity? Authenticity stems from an understanding of the ourselves; our thoughts, feelings, desires, needs and beliefs. To act authentically means to act in accordance with inner thoughts and emotions; to express yourself in ways which are congruent with the self. A question I often ask myself to ensure authenticity is; “are my head, heart and soul in agreement?”. When there is a lack of authenticity we engage in a “false-self” behaviour; acting in opposition to how one really feels, in a way that does not match our inner emotional experience.For example; smiling in politeness when in fact someone’s behaviour is truly upsetting you. Inauthentic behaviour can occur when general approval or social acceptance becomes the priority over one’s emotional well being and self worth.

False-self behaviours begin to emerge in late childhood, going into early adolescence. Of course, this occurs due to the fact that teenagers begin to question their identity by trying to things and exploring new roles. Adolescence is a notoriously difficult phase of life, and being authentic as a teenager is not always easy. It is important that they are able to differentiate between what is congruent to their internal emotional experience and what is not. This highlights the importance of fostering a strong sense of self as early as possible so that, natural exploration in teenagehood allows them to find things that further develop their identity rather than hinder and confuse it. We want our teens to know what feels ‘right’ and for them and what doesn’t. Staying authentic requires self-awareness, confidence, and a willingness to tolerate and work through conflict. When we are authentic we instill confidence and solidify relationships.

Now that we know a bit about what authenticity is, why do teens seek authenticity in others so much? In my experience as an Educational Psychologist, I have seen the biggest breakthroughs when I myself have been my most authentic self in therapy. Teenagers are naturally curious and so they should be. For example; if asked how their weekend was they would often want to know about mine as well. Whether I was married or ever tried smoking myself? In university we are often taught to avoid personal questions and rather questions their need to know these personal things. But if we really think about it, how can I expect a teenager to trust me with their thoughts, feelings and secrets when I can’t even be open and honest about who I am as person. Of course there are boundaries but the day I decided to say, “Yes, I did try smoking when I was a teenager” or “ My weekend was great thank you. Very relaxing”, the opportunity for connection and rapport grew considerably. In my work, the power of the relationship forms the basis for any type of therapeutic success.

Teenagers will question authority and the things we do which is vital to develop critical thinking. Teenagers do really want help and support, they want to be heard and the opinion of their parents matters greatly however, what we say is not going to be taken at face value any more as it was with an ever trusting child. It is an important part of teenage development to critically analyze the world around them and the people in it. This process helps to keep them safe. Imagine if they believed everything they heard and did not question things. This would be a much more dangerous thing. I would rather be caught out by my teenager than have them thinking that everything I do is gospel. There are many issues that stem from inauthentic behaviour of parents being modelled by their teenagers. It is important for us as adults to teach our teenagers that;

  • Mistakes are ok. We all make mistakes. They provide an opportunity for learning, problem solving and growth.

  • Sometimes we don’t know everything. It’s impossible to know everything. We would not expect this of ourselves so we cannot expect this of our teens.

  • Asking for help from others is a strength not a weakness. A different brain, set of eyes and ears can be incredibly helpful when we feel stuck. Asking for help from others builds relationships, support and comradery.

  • Honest feedback is more constructive than false praise. How we provide this feedback is key. “I can see you really tried hard on this project. What would you do differently next time to get a better mark?”. Negativity does not equate honesty.

  • Boundaries are important for our well being and the well being of others. Your role is not that of a friend but a parent. A role model and a guide. Boundaries provide predictability, stability, trustworthiness and reliability. In essence, you know where you stand with others and others know where they stand with you.

  • Acknowledging emotions is healthy. We all experience sadness and anger at times. Somedays are better than others and sometimes we feel hurt. Teaching emotional expression allows for better coping, problem solving, conflict management and avoids behavioural difficulties from bottling things up.

  • Disagreements are normal. Conflict is a part of life. We cannot please everyone. Our views and values will always differ on some level. How we manage conflict is important

All in all, We are all human. Strive for authenticity not perfection. Authenticity is realistic, perfection is not. Authenticity is key to a strong sense of self , whether it is for ourselves or our teens.

Co-written by Lauren Dace and Gail Friend