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Identifying With Role Models

How Teens Identify With The Role Models They Choose

Walk into your teenager's room and you're likely to come across posters of teen idols wearing too much makeup and too little clothing. You may spot an item of your child's clothing lying around and you wonder, "How did I ever let my kid purchase such a thing?"

Clearly the personalities that teens today model themselves after are a far cry from the cast of The Brady Bunch. Yet with the television and media exposure and peer pressure that teens are faced with, it's no wonder that they dress, act, and look the way they do.

"Children choose models for themselves as early as the preschool years," says Dr. Amy Beth Taublieb, a clinical psychologist in Buffalo, NY. "The type of models changes with the developmental level of the child."

In Taublieb's experience, many teens choose models for themselves who they see as having particular characteristics that they --the teens -- are lacking. For example, a teen who perceives herself as unattractive may choose a supermodel as a role model. In the event that a parent feels there is something wrong with the role model their child has chosen, the parent needs to "look at the choice as a symptom of what is really going on psychologically," says Taublieb. "Try to figure out what the teen is trying to compensate for by choosing that model, then address that issue directly with the teen."

Whatever the reasoning may be for a child choosing a particular role model, parents may be faced with an uphill battle if they don't like what they see. "Television and media make it really hard to parent," says Ilona Lachterman, mother of three teenagers. "I want certain standards in my family, and pressure from TV and peer pressure work against me sometimes. I try to draw the line at some point when I vehemently disagree with a mode of dress or behavior," she says. "Yet at the same time I try to compromise so that my kids don't stand out too much."

She works at remaining loyal to her beliefs while allowing her kids to model themselves or dissuading them from imitating certain behaviors and looks. "My kids seem to go with what's trendy," Lachterman says. "I know I can't win every battle. I just try to figure out what I can and can't compromise on and I try to stick to those decisions."

It is possible for the media to have less effect on teens than parents may fear. "If a young person has emotional/psychological security as well as open lines of communication with parents, the actual influence is minimal," Taublieb says. "We can take the foundation we gave them early on and reinforce it by watching with them and discussing what they watch."

"Kids today have an impossible standard of 'look great, be cool, act cool now and at any expense,'" says Bettie B. Youngs, Ph.D., author of the "Taste Berries for Teens" series. "Today's teens need to hear from each other that it's OK to look great, be cool and act cool, but the standards for it, and the time table in which it must be done, is not at the expense of mental or physical well-being."

When faced with these difficult situations, parents don't always have all the answers. "We need to support and respect parents whose children have become prey to contemporary dragons, and honor that in today's times, parents need and want help," Youngs says. Parents need to confront the fact that they are overwhelmed with the dangers that teens face so that they don't remain in the dark as to what is going on. Using books where teenagers are the positive role models is a good way to reach teens and provide them with positive models they can identify with, Youngs says.

While teenagers often choose role models because they truly want to be like those they've chosen, sometimes role models are selected as a means of defiance. "My son knows I can't stand this one rock star that all the kids seem to be listening to these days," says Rochelle, mother of a teen. "I think he put up the posters and bought the CD's just to aggravate me. I just tried to let the whole thing pass, but still let him know how much I disliked what the rock star stood for."

"Preteen and teen years are characteristically years of rebellion," Taublieb says. "The kid chooses a role model whom they hope or know will horrify their parents. During these situations the best thing for the parent to do is act appropriately horrified. Try to tolerate that hideous poster on the bedroom door -- that is a relatively safe way for the child to rebel."

Despite how it may appear, parents are the first and most powerful role model for children. "When kids look elsewhere, they look to parents for their reaction to this new 'role model,'" Taublieb says.

It's reassuring to think that the foundations parents provide their children when they are young will see them through yet another difficult stage of parent-teen relationships. "I hope that I've sent the right message to my kids in terms of what actions and appearances to copy and what not to," says Lachterman. "I can't deny that they are teenagers and we won't agree on everything. Right now I'm satisfied knowing that though they may look to a movie star for modes of dress, they'll also look to an Olympic athlete and learn perseverance and satisfaction from a job well done."

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