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Cultivating identity formation in youth programs through authenticity

By Jessica Pierson Russo

Smiling girl in jean jacket
As a young boy, my son had a volatile temper. One day, in trouble again at his afterschool program, instead of the usual reprimand, I saw three friends (one of whom my son had just hit) assuring him that he could control himself. They hugged him, and in humble gratitude, I took a picture. This moment had provided him a sense of safety and acceptance during a difficult time in his identity formation—he hated himself for his lack of control. The youth program played an important role in helping him move on from this years-long struggle. I believe authenticity was a key factor.  

Authenticity—the extent to which we can be our true selves without hiding—may seem like a utopian ideal—afterall, the process of getting to know oneself, especially in teenhood, can be messy, and depending on the behavior involved, we may not always be able to accommodate a particular child’s struggle. But identity formation is a vital part of adolescent health, and youth programs have the prime opportunity to support it by providing space for teens to be their authentic teen selves.

Psychologists often describe authenticity in terms of four components: 1) Awareness—of our own thoughts, feelings, values, traits, ways of being, etc.; 2) Unbiased processing—of how we assess and accept (or not) information about ourselves; 3) Behavior—how well we stay true to our real feelings, preferences, values, and needs regardless of pressures to do otherwise; and 4) Relational orientation—how open and honest we are in our closest relationships.

The following strategies incorperate these aspects of authenticity to support identity formation in youth programs. 
  • Help youth build self-awareness through exploration. Provide opportunities for youth to discover interests and abilities, try different roles, and explore the many dimensions of their lives that influence their values and culture, such as family, faith, race, ethnicity, and community. In addition, help youth understand these multifaceted aspects of themselves as both acceptable and changeable.  Youth need to hear honest feedback and be able to receive it objectively. To help them practice, create regular opportunities for them to give each other constructive feedback, such as through feedback circles.  Encouraging youth to stretch beyond what they’re normally comfortable with can help.
  • Help youth practice unbiased processing as they explore. Youth should be able to acknowledge and accept the various aspects of themselves without feeling the need to lie about or play them up/down to themselves or to others. We can help youth develop this ability by being honest with them, holding them accountable to following through on needed improvements, and by helping them see and live up to their true potential.
  • Cultivate an atmosphere of forgiveness, openness, and honesty to support their struggles and triumphs with identity development by:
    • Engaging them in regular group dialog about mistakes we’ve made in the past.
    • Regularly acknowledging their in-the-moment feelings, assuring them that these feelings are normal, and helping them learn healthy ways to navigate them;
    • Designating space for them to “take a break” from others when needed;
    • Helping them explore their values by talking about the issues they’re wrestling with and practicing hearing different viewpoints without getting upset;
    • Helping youth find their purpose.
Today, my son (at 15) is one of the most unabashedly self-assured people I know, in part because he was given the space to be himself, with all the mess that comes with figuring out what that means. 

What role do you see authenticity playing in cultivating a supportive environment for youth to be, and to learn about themselves?
-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator

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