3 Ways We Can Help Students with Identity Formation

Students are developing their identity.

So what does that have to do with us? Parents, teachers, youth workers and friends play a crucial role in who a student will become. Here are three areas we all need to know about identity and the role we play in a student’s development.

Endless Possibilities

Students are just discovering themselves. Marketing and other social forces had them thinking about this way too soon but the brain is ready after 12 to recognizing there is a self to be known. Social pressure also has students crafting their identity on Instagram instead of discovering who they are. They may project an image of what they want to become (sometimes copying a celebrity that they admire or adult role model)

As students try on identities in the same way that adults may try on outfits it is essential that instead of withdrawing from their lives adults continue to play an active role. This role is not telling them who they should be but by being ourselves students can begin to adopt behaviors and values that we model.

Consistently Inconsistent

If you work with students you’ve probably noticed that change happens regularly. Students are discovering what they like and don’t like. They are beginning to understand their personality and will test how people react if they try to be funny, angry, or intelligent.

They will use relationships as a mirror to see how people react to their moods and ideas. In all of this, students may not follow through on hobbies, interests, or commitments. Parents, teachers, coaches and youth workers may find this lack of long term commitment frustrating.

What students need in this is guidance to complete what they start but understanding that the original motivation may not be there any more. For students to understand the importance of follow through will be essential for their spiritual and social maturity.

So Self Conscious

It’s understandable that students will be preoccupied with themselves. Sadly, parents and social media have had them over concerned about their looks and behavior way too early. They have lived their whole lives in front of cameras.

What is different now is that they are the ones with the camera focused on themselves. They also have their mind focused on themselves evaluating what they are saying and how they are received by others.

This is going to appear narcissistic. It will appear that they are so in love with themselves that they appear vain. That may not be the case. This preoccupation with self may not be “love.” Self-consciousness can cause some care free children to be up tight youth with many fears about their peers and adults.

Even those who are more self-confident, secretly struggle with insecurity concerning their looks, their intelligence, their social skills, or their athletics.

One big question they are considering is “Do you love me?”(which means loving the self they are now discovering.) Even if it is difficult at times, our answer needs to be an unwavering, “YES!” This unconditional love isn’t always easy to offer when our child or a student we are working with doesn’t seem to be becoming someone we like.

Love and Patience

Can you think of someone who was patient with you during your formative years? Did they affirm you as a person even when you said and did things that you now wish you hadn’t? I would hope that each student would have someone in their life like that.

If we could be that stable support when everything else in their life seems to be scattered all over the place and constantly changing there’s a good chance that as their identity begins to set it will be our characteristics they will include in the final product.





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Ron Powell


Ron Powell is the Adviser to the Director of the Youth Ministry Institute at Vanguard College. He has been involved in youth ministry for over 30 years. He continues to volunteer, write, teach, and speak to parents, leaders and teens. If you would like to contact him you can email ron.powell@vanguardcollege.com


  1. Ron, This article is so “on the mark.” In my research for my book: “What Would It Take For Youth To Come To Church,” I interviewed hundreds of youth asking that very question. “Youth need a voice” which means someone has to be listening. The curriculum in Ontario has been stripped of all value statements and teachers are pressed to follow the curriculum. Youth, today, spend very little time in the presence of a parent. This means that there is little opportunity for “sound” moral reasoning. Most of the values tested come from the media. We also know from the research that the only way to get better at reasoning morally is to do more of it (Kohlberg.) So when do youth have an opportunity to reason about what kind of a person they would like to be? How can they test out theories about the “self” without someone sensible as a steady sounding board? We all need to step up for the youth and be better listeners (i.e., parents, teachers, coaches, church leaders, etc.) Ron, thank you for your blog posts and insight into youth. You might also be interested in my latest publication “Short Term Mission Training” designed to support youth in particular with STM.

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