Who doesn't love to take personality quizzes on Facebook? I have to confess that I'm easily sucked in. I've taken quizzes that have told me what state should I live in (New York), what country should I live in (Italy), what breed of dog I would be (poodle?) and what job I should have (writer).
It wasn't that long ago that you could only find such perceptive analysis on the pages of Cosmo or Glamour. For most of us, taking these quizzes is more about fun and less about self-discovery. We usually take them to confirm what we already know about ourselves. By our thirties, researchers say, our personalities are fully developed, and we have a better sense of who we are as individuals.
Our tweens and teens, on the other hand, have a very fluid idea of who they are. One day they may be quite certain that they are destined for medical school, and the next day they may be ready to take their garage band on the road after high school. At home, they may be moody hermits, but at school, they may be strong leaders or class clowns.
Their true identity usually lies somewhere in the middle of all the extremes of adolescence. Tweens and teens need to try on many different personality traits for size, and at that age, the pendulum swings wildly from side to side.
At first, your youngsters will claim your likes and dislikes as their own. As they move into the tween years, they'll start imitating other adults they admire, such as teachers or neighbors. In the late tween and early teen years, it's all about their peers. They'll start adopting their friends' traits, and it may even seem like their goal is to be the opposite of you.
If it makes you feel any better, there is scientific explanation for why this happens. According to cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, the prefontal cortex undergoes dramatic development during adolescence. This is the part of the brain that controls decision-making, planning, the inhibition of inappropriate behavior, social interaction and self-awareness — all areas where teens appear to be sorely lacking.
Because this part of the brain is underdeveloped compared to adults, teens literally have a hard time seeing things from others' points of view. They approach each social interaction with a different point of view than we do.
So next time your changeable tweens or teens are getting to you, remember that it won't always be like this. Take a deep breath, think of the development going on in their brains and consider how you can ease them through this process:
Watch how you label them. When kids are small, their self-identity is completely based on what we call them. It's tempting for well-meaning parents to label a girl a tomboy or girlie-girl, but if that's not how she feels inside as she grows up, you may be paving the way for inner turmoil.
By the same token, a tentative preschooler will certainly develop confidence as he tackles new challenges when school starts. Attaching labels can limit their progress and make them uncomfortable with change.
Let them make choices.Having control over what they eat or how they dress — within reason — helps kids develop confidence in their own choices. It's the first step in developing autonomy and an identity separate from yours.
Be patient with sudden changes. Don't fret about unexpected twists and turns, but be firm about maintaining responsibilities. The kid who loved soccer so much at age 8 may not be so keen about it at 10. But she may love it again at age 11. "You must always finish what you start" is a good rule, whether that means finishing the soccer season, the first year of violin lessons or shoveling the neighbor's sidewalks.
Listen to more permanent changes. If your tween's change of heart isn't changing back again, let him move on to another activity. Once his initial obligation is met, there's no value to making him sign on for another year of misery. Letting him choose his next passion and supporting him in new efforts will give him confidence and reinforce his individuality.
Encourage activities in identity development. Yes, let them take those Facebook personality quizzes or find some on their favorite magazine website. Give them a journal or a photo collage frame to fill. These activities are fun and may give you both some valuable insight.
Listen, listen, listen. Parents frequently complain that their teens don't talk to them. Often, that's because busy parents use every conversation as a to-do list or a pep talk. Ask open-ended questions and really listen to the answers without judging them. Think of your conversations as a learning opportunity — for you, not your teen. You're learning how they look at life. You may be in for a pleasant surprise.■
Maureen Connors Badding is a Wauwatosa freelance writer, mom and habitual volunteer.