Evidence That It Works
In a study, teens who were mostly ninth graders and attended a public high school in the Southwestern region of the United States (race/ethnicity: 24.3% Black or African American, 30.3% Latino, 2.8% Asian American, 6.0% American Indian or Native American, or 36.7% White) were randomly assigned to an 8-session program that either explored cultural identity or post-high school training options. In the identity exploration program, teens learned about key concepts like race, ethnicity, stereotypes, and discrimination, and also engaged in activities that helped them understand their racial and ethnic backgrounds like making a family tree. Teens in the post-high school training program explored various career paths and financial aid opportunities.
Compared to teens in the training options program, teens in the racial-ethnic identity program engaged in greater identity exploration and had a clearer sense of themselves (e.g., “I like myself and am proud of what I stand for”), greater self-esteem, fewer feelings of depression, and better grades.
Why Does It Matter?
One of the most important tasks during adolescence is to engage in personal exploration to develop a clear sense of identity—a sense of consistency across time and circumstances in the ways they relate to others and their commitments to roles, values, and beliefs. When teens are able to gain a deep understanding of who they are, they are better able to chart a course for their lives with a sense of meaning and purpose. Achieving clarity on their identity can help teens have a sense of “inner unity,” become more self-aware, recognize their assets and efficacy, and have greater self-direction interpersonally and within a broader society.
A sense of identity helps contribute to teens’ well-being beyond adolescence because it sets the stage for nurturing close relationships into adulthood. Learning about and developing positive feelings about the social groups they belong to is another way that your teen develops a positive self-concept. What’s more, teens who have a good understanding of their identity are better able to bridge across differences and pursue justice. “The more comfortable individuals are in their own skin, the more capacity they will have to engage in a productive manner with others,” explain psychologists Deborah Rivas-Drake and Adriana Umaña-Taylor in their book Below the Surface: Talking with Teens about Race, Ethnicity, and Identity. Teens who have a greater understanding and positive feelings about their cultural identity are better able to recognize injustices related to their own identity as well as their connection to the struggles of other marginalized identities, and, in turn, are more caring and helpful to others as they act against injustice.