Adolescent Sexuality and Finding Identity in Christ
by Dr. Jori Reijonen
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:1-2, NIV
Adolescents and Identity Formation
Adolescents today face many challenges as they strive to become young men and women. For those who are believers in Christ and strive to live godly lives, the task remains formidable. As they struggle to form their identity, they do so in a culture that has become increasingly hostile towards God and His standards.
Forming one’s identity has been identified as one of the major psychosocial tasks of adolescence. Teens must develop their identity and discover who they are: Failure to develop a strong identity will lead to role confusion and difficulties forming relationships as one moves forward in life.
As adolescents develop their identity, they receive feedback from the people around them, including parents, teachers, and peers. Teens increasingly move away from reliance on their parents and look towards their peers for acceptance. In many ways, this can be seen as healthy and adaptive. If teens did not begin to move towards independence from their parents, they might not be ready to move away from home as they reach adulthood. And perhaps without some of the struggles that occur between teens and parents as teens develop their own identity, parents might never be ready to let their young adults move away and live their own lives.
Culture and Identity
Unfortunately, the peer culture that many teens find themselves within can promote values and behavior that contradict Christian values. In many peer cultures, experimentation with illicit drugs, alcohol, and sexuality has become the norm. Teens that do not conform to peer culture may experience ridicule and social isolation from their peers. As a psychologist, I have worked with teens whose conformity to these negative behaviors such as experimentation with sex and/or substances have led them into significant emotional, physical, social, and spiritual trouble. I have also worked with teens whose strength in resisting the trends of modern teen culture and holding to their Christian values have led them into social isolation from their peers and even serious depression.
Adolescents today also live in a world of media influence that has become increasingly counter to Christianity and to forming one’s identity in Christ. Media bombards all of us with images of unhealthy and immoral sexuality. New forms of media have arisen, changing the ways that teens gain information, experience entertainment, and socially interact. Many of these media forms may not have been in existence when their parents were teens.
Physical Changes and Identity
Adding to the adolescents’ difficult task of forming a healthy identity during this time, the physical changes of puberty transform the body from that of a child to that of an adult. Teens must adjust to a new physical appearance and to social changes in how he or she is treated. Many teens experience feelings of embarrassment and/or self-consciousness during this stage. They also contend with new emotions and sexual urges as they develop attractions and romantic interests. Dealing with these intense feelings is a new experience for teens. Even the cognitive abilities of teens continue to change and grow as adolescents become increasingly able to think abstractly, which contributes to their tendency to argue and challenge authority.
No longer a child, but not yet an adult, adolescents must find new ways to fit in and interact with peers and adults. Changes in our society has greatly prolonged this stage, as spiritual, educational, social, and financial maturity and independence takes considerably longer than physical maturity to develop.
Parenting and Finding Identity in Christ
So what can we as parents do? How can we influence our teens and help them to develop healthy identities as young men and women, as individuals who have unique personalities, talents and gifts given to them by God? How can we help our teens to turn their natural inclination to challenge authority towards challenging the peer culture and the unhealthy images of sexuality presented by the media today? As the parent of three children, two in adolescence, I confront these difficult questions alongside you.
As challenging as this may be, research shows that teens do remain open to the influence of their parents. They do hear what their parents say, even when they appear to not be listening. Our influence, however, relies heavily on the relationship that we have built and continue to build with our children throughout childhood and adolescence. Our influence also relies on our understanding and empathy for the challenges that today’s teens face.
As parents, we can understand many of our teen’s emotions by looking back at our own adolescences. At the same time, understand that technology, media, and peer culture have changed: It is likely that your teen faces pressures and challenges to his or her behavior and identity in Christ that you may never have faced.
Provide a safe haven in your home and your relationship where your teen can ask questions and learn about healthy sexuality and God’s gift of sexuality and the beauty of sex within the covenanted relationship of marriage. Allow your teen to ask questions and to talk about the pressures they face as they develop their identity. Let him or her know that the changes they are experiencing are normal, while at the same time letting them know the boundaries for healthy sexuality that God has provided for us as believers.
Discuss with your adolescent the ways in which the prevailing culture has become deceived about healthy sexuality. Remember that your teen will likely encounter many messages about sexuality from the media, his or her peers, and the surrounding culture. If you do not talk about these issues, your teenagers knowledge about sexuality will be more influenced by the surrounding culture than by you and your Christian values, ideals, and expectations.
The information and support that your adolescent will need will not come from a single “talk” about sex, but from a strong relationship with you and knowing that he or she can talk to you across time as new situations arise. Teens will also benefit from the safety of appropriate boundaries, responsibilities, privileges and consequences that parents provide.
Providing your teen with a healthier peer culture through, for example, our church youth programs, small groups, ministry and missions opportunities, can help. Adolescents seem to be “hard-wired” to need other teens and to develop social relationships. If that teen culture embraces Christ and Biblical values for sexuality and other important issues, your teen will be better equipped to handle the pressure of our prevailing culture.
Developing a healthy identity is one of the key tasks of adolescents. If that identity comes from the world, from the prevailing culture, our teens are likely to engage in spiritually, physically, and emotionally unhealthy sexual behavior. Through helping our teens develop a strong identity in Christ, we can help them to resist the influences in our culture which promote unhealthy sexuality in teenagers, and instead help them to choose to become godly young men and women and to follow God’s plan for healthy sexuality.
American Psychological Association, (n.d.). Parenting: The teen years. APA website. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/teen-years.aspx Retrieved 1/18/12.
Cherry, K., (n.d.). Identity Verseus Confusion: Stage Five of Psychosocial Development. About.com website http://psychology.about.com/od/psychosocialtheories/a/identity-versus-confusion.htm Retrieved 1/18/12.
Focus on the Family website, (n.d.). Talking About Sex and Puberty. http://www3.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/sexuality/talking_about_sex.aspx Retrieved 1/18/12.
Jackson, R., (n.d.). Healthy Childhood Sexual Development. http://www3.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/sexuality/healthy_childhood_sexual_development.aspx . Retrieved 1/18/12.
Klepacki, L., (2004). What Your Teens Need to Know about Sex. Focus on the Family: Pure Intimacy website. http://www.pureintimacy.org/piArticles/A000000610.cfm Retrieved 1/18/12.