Two of the most basic and fundamental needs teens feel are the need to fit in and the need to be their own person. It’s a complicated tightrope of identity to walk, and as it turns out, it’s one of the most important lessons learnt throughout adolescence. However, on the outside, parents may scoff at the duality of this notion. How can you possibly need to be part of a group and to be a unique individual?

The answer, like most teenagers, is complicated.

Fitting in has everything to do with acceptance and camaraderie. Yes, your teen may be texting or Facebooking all the time, but what they gain in constant communication they lack in meaningful relationships. Teenagers typically lack the experience necessary to connect with peers on a deep, honest level, so most turn to peer groups in order to feel that societal connection. To achieve this, they place a higher value on conforming to the looks and attitudes of their group. They feel this need so much that failing to fit in often leads to drastic behavioral shifts to accommodate or shun traditional acceptance, such as smoking, drinking, premarital sex and drugs.

On the other hand, the teenage years are also spent formulating a personal identity.  Do you remember how you became “you?” It didn’t just happen out of the blue. Your identity has been carefully crafted by personal experience and introspection, both of which are integral parts of growing up. The main purpose behind the need to be your own person is to develop a clear sense of identity. Teens try out different roles for different audiences, and while many of these are put on to try and fit in, the main purpose is to discover who they really are and who they want to be.

The difference between fitting in and being unique all comes down to one similarity: choice. Throughout these formative years, your teen will make the first choices of their young adult lives. Who to be friends with, what clothes to wear and what hobbies they choose will all impact who they become and the people they’ll spend their lives with. To anyone that can be daunting. To a teen, it can be incredibly stressful.

Making choices is one of the hardest parts of being an adult, and learning how to make them as both an individual and a member of a group is one of the most important and difficult parts of growing up. Being understood by others and being unique to yourself are just as different to your teen as they are to you. But by understanding this difference, we can learn to help guide teens along the right paths of identity and acceptance.