Adolescence is a time of growth and change, of seeking independence while maintaining a strong need for interdependence.  While typical adolescence can be rocky, rife with ups and downs for everyone, research has shown that it may be particularly problematic for girls and gender non-binary students due in no small part to the increased number of roles these youth are expected to step into.

Even before they answer a single math problem or write a single essay, teens have a lot of work to do. Among the developmental projects this stage of life assigns:

Physical Development: puberty and resulting hormonal changes, increased height, usually increased weight and appearance of acne, and development of secondary sexual characteristics

Cognitive Development: abstract thought appears and strengthens, as does an increased concern with philosophy, politics, and social issues; however, the brain continues to process daily information mostly through the amygdala (the emotion center of the brain)

Social Development: increased comparison of self to others, peer influence and acceptance are paramount, interest grows in romantic/sexual relationships, friendships based on intimate exchange of thoughts and feelings as opposed to just shared activities, expanding social circles and social roles, increased empathy and awareness of others’ thoughts and feelings

Identity Development: to include seeking independence, navigating friend groups, exploring morality, sexuality, and self as individual as well as self within groups—exploring intersectionality of identities and determining salience of these identities to view of self and how the self interacts with others and within the world

Moral Development: begin to see the world in shades of gray, forming own moral code, seeking reasons for rules, and growing interest in bigger, ethical questions

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Identity Development as the Key to Successfully Navigating Adolescence

Given all of this work, the single most important developmental task for adolescents, first discussed by Erik Erikson, is to gain a sense of identity—this often includes some ups and downs emotionally, and socially, as the adolescent tries on new ways of being, doing, and interacting.

Successful completion of this task leads to what Erikson labels “fidelity,” or the ability to engage in genuine interactions with one’s self and others. Trouble can arise, though, when an adolescent is left without a coherent sense of self, or is unable to experience genuine self across settings and interactions.

In the field of adolescent psychology, this is known as Role Confusion. Students who entered adolescence with a strong sense of self, usually influenced by familial or cultural norms and expectations, often experience a form of Identity Crisis as they navigate the role confusion inherent in identifying their own values and goals, or engaging in typical adolescent behaviors, that may or may not be in line with the familial and cultural expectations.

While most adolescents experience some level of role confusion or identity crisis during this developmental stage, problems occur when the teen is unable to effectively gain and maintain a genuine sense of identity by late adolescence.

This lack of a coherent sense of self leads to overarching feelings of purposelessness, confusion, and disappointment, as well as difficulty attaining the next developmental task of intimate, genuine, and fulfilling relationships.

The Myth of the Supergirl

In today’s society, particularly in Western cultures, females and gender non-binary adolescents are often barraged on all sides by well-meaning adults, media, peers, cultural norms, and social media with ideas of the “perfect girl.” No longer is it enough to just be beautiful, or just be smart; a girl can (and must) do it all.

In fact, cultural norms and expectations play an outsized role in identity development, especially through the lens of gender roles. As adolescents seek  to create a genuine identity, their growing awareness of their gender and their sexuality can shape how they choose to integrate into their identities.

Girls and gender non-binary adolescents are expected to be leaders, high achievers, kind-hearted, driven, and always well-put together and attractive. They are told they can meet all of the expectations society has of males, and, for the most part girls are doing this: girls outperform boys across all grades in all subjects (though not in all standardized or end of semester assessments), they outnumber boys in leadership positions in school clubs and organizations, have higher graduation rates, more AP courses, and are applying to, and graduating from, both college and graduate programs in higher numbers than their male counterparts.

Yet, they are also expected to meet the cultural expectations for females: to be kind and polite, to put others before themselves, and to not show aggression, assertiveness, or ego. All of this is further influenced by the culturally and biologically supported need for numerous peer relationships, that serve to both feed emotional needs and increase social capital.

And somehow our culture suggests that it’s possible to meet these expectations perfectly, to be a Supergirl, especially one who appears to do all of it effortlessly. This thought can lead to the belief that if one is not able to perfectly manage these many roles, one is a failure.

However, the underlying reality is that every time a girl leans into one identity, there is a cost to another. Attempts to meet so many expectations placed by others, and by themselves, can lead to identity confusion, a lack of fidelity in one’s own ideas, beliefs, and desires for oneself, and can become incredibly overwhelming.

To make matters worse,  cultural norms encourage girls to avoid letting  others know they’re struggling, lest they appear less capable and amenable. Many girls in the hallways, the classroom, or on paper resumes for college applications who look like a true Supergirl are actually struggling to maintain the veneer and cracking under the pressure of being too many selves that aren’t their genuine self.

It is in this process, that of defining one’s own identity in a sea of expectations both external and internal, that many girls experience high levels of stress, physical complaints, isolation, anxiety, depression, and disordered eating. They may not have the time, or the energy, to explore their genuine self-identity, leading to identity confusion and eventually identify foreclosure (which is basically settling for a less than genuine identity).

This problem is clear in the data surrounding the well-being of adolescent girls today:

  • 74% of girls say they are under pressure to please everyone (Girls Inc, The Supergirl Dilemma)
  • 98% of girls feel there is an immense pressure from external sources to look a certain way (National Report on Self Esteem)
  • 92% of teen girls would like to change something about the way they look, with body weight ranking the highest. (Dove campaign)
  • 90% of eating disorders are found in girls (National Association for Self Esteem)
  • 1 in 4 girls fall into a clinical diagnosis – depression, eating disorders, cutting, and other mental/emotional disorders. In addition, many more girls report being constantly anxious, sleep deprived, and under significant pressure. (The Triple Bind, Steven Hinshaw)
  • 53% of American girls age 13 are “unhappy with their bodies.” This grows to 78% by the time girls reach seventeen. (National Institute on Media and the Family)
  • Sharp increases of admittance to ER’s for suicide attempts, drug overdoses, and self-harming behaviors for girls: 318 visits per 100,000 for girls ages 10-14 and 633 visits per 100,000 for ages 15-18
  • 51.9% of transgender male teens who participated in the survey reported attempting suicide in their lifetime, while 29.9 percent of transgender female teens said they attempted suicide. Among non-binary youth, 41.8 percent of respondents stated that they had attempted suicide at some point in their lives. (American Academy of Pediatrics)

We need to find a better way to support the growth and identity development of our girls.

What is the secret of success? Right decisions. How do you learn to make right decisions? Experience. How do you get experience? Wrong decisions.

How Mastery Learning Helps

At the Mastery School of Hawken, we are Rewriting the Supergirl Narrative.

Through a culture of shared striving, failing, and persisting to mastery, students will grow in resilience as well as in the realization that growth edges are inevitable, and not a sign of weakness or failure.

At the Mastery School of Hawken, the founding class will have an opportunity to establish the culture of our school.  On January 8, 2020, we hosted 12 prospective girl students and their parents to meet, connect, and share their hopes and concerns around the transition to high school.   We are grateful for these rich conversations and connections as together, we build a school with a goal of helping every student thrive, academically, socially and emotionally.

As we build the culture of our school together, a new “Supergirl” myth will emerge in which girls who are willing to try again and again, who are willing to share their growing edges, who are willing to make choices based on what matters to them and not the external factors, who see opportunity in not being perfect, and who are willing to hear and be heard are celebrated, supported, and encouraged.

And while that story may not be enough to inspire a superhero movie, it will be transformational and profound.

Dr. Ashley Poklar

Dr. Ashley Poklar

I graduated from the College of Charleston, in Charleston, SC in 2007 and worked as a special education teacher in alternative high schools. I found I enjoyed the one:one conversations and problem solving with students much more than teaching fractions, and went on to get a Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Cleveland State University. Through my internship experience at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, I began to see a pattern across settings of youth not having a voice, even when sharing their own internal and personal experiences. That led to my pursuing a doctorate in Urban Education, with a specialization in Counseling Psychology, also from Cleveland State University. I am currently a school psychologist at Hawken Upper school with a focus on not only providing support to students in moments of crisis or distress, but also in creating a school culture in which students feel heard, empowered, and able to fumble through the developmental task of figuring out who they are.