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How do you talk to young people about this?

The concept of identity

The development of one's own identity is regarded as the main developmental task during adolescence, primarily pertaining to a ‘sense of identity’. This concerns one's awareness of being a distinct person in different circumstances and at different times. That personal history, present and future are experienced as a meaningfully coherent whole and that one feels recognised and valued in one's social environment (1). Sometimes this feeling concerns the conscious experience of individuality (“this is typical for me”), sometimes the continuity of the experience (“this is how I am”). And sometimes it's about the feeling of being able to commit to the role and position that is determined in the community to which you belong. They are part of a larger whole in which your role is defined. The development of a sense of identity in our culture is usually largely unconscious. In other cultures, it can be more explicit: the sum of tasks and expectations and the sense of being able to handle them. The result, the identity, has something self-evident, especially noticeable when it is no longer there.


"As a clinical psychologist, my experience is that young people who report to youth mental health with ambiguities in their own history, for example adoption or the suspicion of being conceived as a result of sexual violence, often experience various problems. For example, emotional problems, such as anger and depression, lack of energy, insomnia and relational problems. Sometimes they show symptoms of PTSD such as flashbacks, nightmares and irritability. If these symptoms reduce after treatment, the mood problems, confusion and general anxiety often remain. By reflecting on these mood problems, it gradually becomes clear that they are related to questions about the identity and problems in relationships, for example with mother or carers. This restlessness is different and goes deeper than ‘ordinary’ restlessness and confusion that puberty brings."


The questions ‘who am I, who do I look like, etc.…’ are questions that children of all ages can ask. Because it is precisely in adolescence that the developmental task of forming one's own sense of identity becomes more topical, these questions become even more important. If difficult truths are discovered about this, it can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, anger, fear and sometimes relief. This can be very confusing. It takes time to investigate and process all these feelings. Sometimes the young person would like to explore these themes with a third party, someone who is not emotionally involved. It is important to always take into account the history that the young person does know about and the resilience that can be found in that.

Attitude of the therapist, tips for the conversation.

How do you talk to a young person if you suspect that difficult events have taken place? If they have questions about who they are, are confused about their origin? Or about who they are?

Take your time and be humble and calm in your appearance so that the young person feels they are given the space to talk. Let the young person decide for themselves whether and when they want to share their experiences, and what they wish to share. Young people have a sixth sense when it comes to being sincere in the interest you show and being authentic about yourself. Sincerity determines the quality of the contact and whether the young person ultimately wants to share their confusion, questions and story. Sincerity also means being honest about your emotions that their story evokes in you. It is good to mention these emotions briefly, because the young person will register that their story has an impact on you. Then focus your attention again on the young person, so that they feels the space to continue with their story.

Talking to young people means actively listening! Non-verbal communication is particularly important. These signals provide insight into how the young person feels. After summarising each important part it in your own words and checking if you have understood what the young person is trying to say. Alternate open questions with closed questions but leave the initiative up to the young person. Remember, not everything needs to be discussed in one conversation. If the contact is good, humor is a good way to release tension. Finally, be transparent. Explain the purpose of the conversation and why you are asking certain questions. Be transparent about your own reflections, in other words think ‘out loud’, so that the young person can see your ‘internal process’. This increases trust.

Some young people are better off focusing on what they want to say when they are doing something. Sitting opposite each other in a room doesn't usually result in very good conversations. Placing the chairs at a 90-degree angle, so not right opposite each other, is often better. But sometimes taking a walk together works best!

Substantive focus areas

If there are problems in the relationship with the biological mother, a young person may be reluctant to share this information. Loyalty always plays an important role, and not just because the mother is sometimes the only family that the young person knows. It may also be because she is part of the group, namely the family, no matter how small, to which the young person belongs. That is precisely what is so important during adolescence! It is important to support the young person regarding their concerns and questions about and for the mother. Avoid any form of criticism or what could be regarded as such.

When you feel that there is sufficient trust between you and the young person, you indicate that there may be questions about and regarding the unknown father. This way, you offer the young person the opportunity to formulate their own feelings and thoughts about the father. The young person may have specific questions. The young person may also feel the need to apologise to the father, because he is their father after all. Give the young person space to express all their thoughts and feelings during the conversation. After that, you can discuss what the young person can do to get an answer to specific questions. But also how difficult it is to live with questions that cannot be answered and what would help to shape your life as best you can. There is often ambivalence towards many subjects. Listen and explain about ambivalence. And emphasise the normality of ambivalent feelings and accept that they are there. Do not judge any choices. The young person gets to make their own choice, as part of learning to discover the Self, their own identity, their own narrative.

Explore with the young person where and from whom they feel they are receiving support or who may be able to support them and what the young person is proud of, what is going well. Ask for exceptions to the dominant story that the young person is sharing.

Also focus on the relationship with the mother. Investigate what is happening in the relationship and gauge the willingness to talk to her. Don't suggest this too soon! It's important that the young person trusts you.

Zie ook Where do I come from