Understanding Adolescence 2: Searching for Themselves

This publication, the second in a three-part series, explores the major questions adolescents face as they search for themselves.
Understanding Adolescence 2: Searching for Themselves - Articles


This bulletin is Part II of a three-part series entitled Understanding Adolescence. This series explores adolescence and provides useful information for parents. It offers advice on how to interact with adolescents to enhance their positive development.

Adolescence is filled with intellectual and emotional changes, in addition to the major biological and physical changes presented in Part I of this series. It is a time for young people to discover themselves and their relation-ship to the world around them.

What Are the Major Questions Facing Adolescents?

Abstract thinking ability develops during adolescence. In early adolescence, thinking is still concrete; by the end of this period, individuals are able to fully comprehend abstract concepts. They think of good arguments to support their positions. As they begin to think abstractly, adolescents are more likely to question things that were unquestionable before. For example, an adolescent who had been attending religious services may begin to question his or her religious beliefs. Challenging the status quo is a normal part of adolescence, even though it may appear rebellious.

To encourage positive development, parents and other adults who work with adolescents should allow them some freedom to explore their beliefs. The confused, self-doubting nature of adolescents makes parenting and working with them a challenge.

Maintain a healthy balance between the support and love that you show your adolescents and the boundaries and limits that you set for them.

During adolescence, individuals begin to ask themselves four basic abstract questions:

  • Who am I (pertaining to his or her sexuality and social roles)?
  • Am I normal (do I fit in with a certain crowd)?
  • Am I competent (am I good at something that is valued by my peers and parents)?
  • Am I lovable and loving (can someone besides Mom and Dad love me)?

To encourage positive development, it is important to give adolescents opportunities to work on their own answers to these questions. As parents and responsible adults, we need to provide safe environments where adolescents feel free to explore such difficult issues.

Who am I?

Only by exploring their world can adolescents begin to come up with their own answers to this question. They need to spend time figuring out their own values, establishing the principles by which they will live their lives.

Am I normal?

In order to feel normal about who they are, adolescents sometimes need to be more like their peers than they are like their parents. If you are a parent, do not be too worried about this. According to 35 years of social science research, adolescents generally choose peers whose values are similar to those of their parents. The research also shows the importance of parental monitoring to guide your adolescents’ peer relations. Remember to ask the “W” questions of parental monitoring (see below).

Am I competent?

Parents and adults who work with adolescents need to encourage adolescents to test their interests. Help them find at least one skill that they are good at and can “master.” Move from being an authority figure to being a facilitator. To be effective facilitators, parents and other adults should:

  • Assist adolescents with their challenges and problems, without solving the problems for them.
  • Ask questions, instead of giving orders. Use “could” questions such as, “What are some things you could do?”
  • Guide but do not direct.
  • Present only real choices. For instance, offer examples of what other people have tried in similar situations.

Am I lovable and loving?

Like all other human beings, adolescents need to know that other people, especially parents and other adults, love them. Adolescents develop best when they have a supportive family and community life, characterized by the following:

  • warmth and mutual respect
  • serious and lasting interest of parents and other adults
  • parental and adult attention to adolescents’ cognitive, emotional, social, and physical changes
  • close supervision and clear standards regarding discipline
  • communication of high expectations for achievement and ethical behavior
  • democratic and helpful ways of dealing with conflict

Although these four questions come up in adolescence, they usually are not completely answered in adolescence. These questions are often asked again during adulthood, though perhaps less intensely than during adolescence.

What Are Adolescent Risk Behaviors, and How Should They Be Addressed?

Experimenting with “risk behaviors” is as much a normal part of adolescence as asking questions. Some of it is to be expected. However, experimentation can lead to the formation of dangerous habits if it is not curtailed. Some examples of risk behaviors are alcohol and drug abuse, delinquency, and early and/or unprotected sex.

Parents and adults who work with youth should monitor youth activities, but not overreact when adolescents are caught experimenting. What if you catch your adolescents experimenting with a risk behavior like drinking?Try waiting a few hours or a day to discuss the situation with them. This will usually give you enough time to calm down and collect your thoughts. Then you can give logical reasons why the adolescents should not participate in the risk behavior. Also, the adolescents may be uncomfortable or embarrassed about what occurred, and waiting a day will give them time to reflect. Make the consequences unpleasant but not extreme. Also, remember to reward your adolescents when they do good things at other times.

Parental monitoring requires that parents always ask their adolescents the four “W” questions:

  • Where are you going?
  • With whom are you going?
  • What are you doing?
  • When will you be home?

Start monitoring early. It is easier to establish the practice in childhood and continue through adolescence than to start monitoring when the child becomes an adolescent. Parents should also answer these “W” questions when they go out. This shows your adolescents that you care about them and that you are interested in being fair to them, rather than merely wishing to control their actions.


Adolescence marks the emergence of complex modes of thinking that involve in-depth questioning. Parents and adults need to expect uncertainty and self-searching when interacting with adolescents. Adolescents are taking steps toward independence, but they are not yet truly independent.

Parents and adults need to provide adolescents with factual information and activities that will enable the adolescents to explore their feelings and their world. For example, parents and adults may want to provide opportunities for adolescents to get involved in community service somewhere outside their normal settings, such as on the other side of town or even in another state.

Parents and adults can be good resources for adolescents who are searching for their destiny. Opportunities to explore their world and interact with parents and adults are important to the positive development of adolescents. Indeed, through example and guidance, parents and adults can have a strong positive impact on the lives of adolescents.


Lerner, R. M., and N. L. Galambos (Eds.) (1984). Experiencing adolescents: A sourcebook for parents, teachers, and teens. New York: Teachers College.

Schaefer, C. E. and T. F. DiGeronimo (1998). How to talk to teens about really important things: Specific questions and answers and useful things to say. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publications.

Vernon, A., and R. H. Al-Mabuk (1995). What growing up is all about: A parent’s guide to child and adolescent development. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

The WonderWise Parent contains information on parenting and parent-child relationships.

Search Institute provides articles and program information about youth development.


Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (1995). Great transitions: Preparing adolescents for a new century. New York: Carnegie Corporation.

Cobb, N. J. (1996). Adolescence: Continuity, change, and diversity. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.

Dryfoos, J. G. (1990). Adolescents at risk: Prevalence and prevention. New York: Oxford University Press.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: W. W. Norton.

Gullotta, T. P., G. R. Adams, and C. A. Markstrom (2000). The adolescent experience. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Hamburg, B. (1974). “Early adolescence: A specific and stressful stage of the life cycle.” In G. Coehol, D. A. Hamburg, & J. E. Adams (Eds.), Coping and adaptation (pp. 101-125). New York: Basic Books.

Lerner, R. M. (1995). America’s youth in crisis: Challenges and options for programs and policies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Prepared by Daniel F. Perkins, associate professor of family and youth resiliency and policy in the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education.