5 Ways To Help Your Kids Build a Solid Identity
We are in an all-out identity crisis these days. Though it is part of the human experience to try to sort out who we are at different stages of life, never has that need become as critical or as urgent as it is right now. Whether it’s about gender, sexual orientation, where we fit in, or “why am I here?,” there has been a whole lot of grappling going on, sometimes with tragic results. I have to admit, when I was a younger parent, my children’s sense of their own identity wasn’t really on my radar.
Now I know better.
Partly, that’s due to the fact that we adopted older children a few years ago. We actually have four adopted kids, along with one biological. Adoption itself does bring identity issues to the forefront, but when you adopt kids that have raised themselves for the first 10-12 years of their lives, you realize how necessary good parenting is to building their identities. So now, here I am, an accidental authority on identity-building in kids. Not that I know how to do that perfectly, but I am keenly aware of what is needed.
And what is needed is a solid identity; a firm foundational belief and perspective of who you are.
Because when you know who you are, you tend to make healthy decisions. Decisions that support self-preservation and growth. When you know who you are, your behavior tends to be stable and predictable, because it’s in line with what you believe. And what you believe about yourself, life, and the people around you is informed by a healthy perspective. Relationships are affected by what people believe about themselves. Insecurity—or confidence—flourishes in a person depending on their sense of self.
Think of a newborn baby. Does she know who she is? How does she come to learn that? Generally speaking, she will learn it from two sources: people and experiences. When you think of it in these simple terms, it becomes clear how important it is that kids learn the truth about who they are from their parents.
So how do we do that? Hundreds of ways, probably, but for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to break it down into five general categories. These are what I believe to be the critical truths your kids must believe in order to have a solid identity:
1. I Am Loved.
I’m sure you all know we need to know this. But just as important as you communicating to your child that you love them is your child being able to receive it. Figure out each kid’s love language and speak it! I would prefer to hug and cuddle all my kids, for example, but for some of them, physical affection pushes buttons. Some need to hear me say it. Some need to see it in print. Others need little gifts and tokens of our love.That doesn’t mean we only stick to that one expression. But be aware of what actually makes your child feel loved, not just how you like to show it.
2. I Am Chosen.
We each have a deep need to know that we have been chosen. Think of times in your own life that you have (and have not) been chosen. Can you feel how significant (and often, life changing) those events were? The same is true for your kids. They will have plenty of their own experiences with it. Better to start them right off the bat by knowing that you chose them—and would choose them, again and again. Whether they were adopted, planned, or a surprise, they need to hear the story of how they came to be part of the family, and what a blessing to you that it was. If you can’t easily retell their story, think it through. Write it down. And make sure they hear it often enough to recite it by heart. They will rely on that one day.
3. I Belong.
This is critically important, moms and dads. No jokes about being a black sheep, adopted, etc. No child needs to feel they are “different” or like they don’t belong in their own family. Every single person needs to believe that when the whole world feels against them, they can come home to their family and be completely accepted. That there, they fit in. They belong. They have not just a seat at the table, but their seat. Evidence of their belonging is visible in their home. My dad still has artwork I’ve done over the years in his house, even though I haven’t lived with him since I was 12. That makes me feel at home when I visit. Family traditions, no matter how small, demonstrate familial belonging. This thing that we do? This is us, and I am a part of it. I’ve watched traditions alone give our newest kids a sense of their place in our family.
4. I Am Safe/Secure.
Of course it’s vital that children are physically safe and secure within their families, but what about emotional safety and security? Moms and dads, demonstrate to your children that you are safe for them to run to when they are afraid, sad, lonely, angry, or confused. Help them process their thoughts and feelings, no matter how young or old they are. Every one of us needs to hear it is OK. We need to know we’re “normal” on some level. It is especially important now that your kids don’t pacify themselves (or numb out) in front of a screen. Or with food. Or with buying things. In times of inner turmoil, a child needs to know they can count on you for comfort and to be safe place to land, above all else.
5. I Matter.
Before a child can learn to value himself, he must hear (and know) he matters to you. As I’ve said, I have five children, and one of them happens to be easy-going and laid back. Sometimes a kid like that gets lost in the shuffle or overshadowed by needier, more challenging siblings. I will never forget the time she choked out the question, “Do I matter to you?” through her sobs. It nearly tore my heart in half. Somehow I took it for granted that she knew. She did not. Children need to know that their place in this world matters. Make a point of helping your child see how he makes a difference in your life and in other people’s lives. Not just for what he does, but for who he is.
As a Christian, I believe that our true identity must be grounded firmly in who God says we are and in how He sees us. But even God, in His perfect plan, intended that we build our identity first with our parents. It’s a huge responsibility, and so important that we get this right. Because those 5 areas I outlined are deep, deep needs we all have. And if our kids don’t receive them first from their parents and ultimately, from God, they will look to other sources to fill them. Then they will have placed their very identity in the hands of other people or things. And if they lose them, or are betrayed, hurt, or abused, they won’t know who they are anymore.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. And it’s not too late. I’ve been intentionally working at this for the last couple of years and it’s making a huge difference in my kids’ lives and emotional wellbeing. If you’re reading this and your little ones are still, well…little…lucky you. And lucky them.
Hug their little bodies tight today and tell them who they are.