Who I Am

Identity and adolescence

Posted Mar 09, 2016

As young people hurtle toward maturity, they are challenged to master three critical developmental tasks: creating an identity to call their own, establishing a reasonable degree of independence from their parents and creating more durable and sustainable relationships with their peer group. There’s not a slam dunk in the mix.

Facets of each of these tasks emerge throughout childhood, yet the real drive for competency appears most tangible during adolescence, famously noted by psychologist Erik Erikson in his “psychosocial stages of development.” Erikson referred to this particular stage as “identity vs. role confusion” – perhaps highlighting the most urgent of the three tasks. In reality, identity is naturally inclusive of the other two: independence and relationships.

Identity is essentially constructed of how one comes to define oneself across a number of spheres, including socially, emotionally, sexually and, eventually, vocationally. It may also include race, ethnicity and ethics. Erikson defined identity as “a subjective sense of invigorating sameness” similar to philosopher John Locke’s concept of psychological continuity.

While that may sound incredibly boring, this stability of self helps provide ballast during the turbulent years of adolescence – which now lasts longer than ever due to younger ages of puberty and older ages of financial independence (not to mention ongoing brain development). 

It may be likely that not all the antecedents of a “fixed” or a “fluid” identity are known. Yet it is safe to say there are at least a couple of important ways the identity formation process is shaped.

First, young people, quite literally, “try on” different roles or personalities, which is one reason they may appear different from one day to the next. This sampling of selves helps them to discern those aspects of an identity that provide maximum satisfaction and reward, including the reactions of significant figures in their lives. Indeed, Erikson said that in order to experience wholeness, young people must feel continuity between how they think of themselves and how they perceive others think of them. Sigmund Freud, the famed psychoanalyst, believed that chief among those significant figures are parents.

Second, young people may “cherry-pick” characteristics of others they find appealing, effective or successful and merge these into their whole. In other words, they may incorporate into their identity traits of others they admire, such as honesty, humor, patience or leadership.

Freud said that this process of “identification” is inevitably predicated on an emotional tie with the individual. Not surprisingly, then, parents again play a determinant role – but others may as well.

Another developmental theorist, James Marcia, set forth the notion that the so-called “identity crisis” arises when young people become cognitively capable of considering whom they want, or need, to become in order to handle the challenges of adulthood.

Or, theories aside, it could simply be a class assignment that kicks off the march toward answering the seminal question: “Who am I?”

Such was the case with Robert Wright, a self-described strong, athletic, happy and joyful 15-year-old, who as an eighth grader was required to create an art project that captured who he is as a person. He told me, “I thought of the two most important things to me: family and sports. For my family side of my poster I taped down a tablecloth, along with plastic plates and utensils, because my family has dinner together every night. All four of us sit down to share a meal and reflect on the day. I included one plate for each person in my family. On the plates I placed pictures from my childhood, covering every year since my birth. On the other side I featured pictures of me playing hockey, football, soccer, basketball, baseball and other sports and put them in order from age one at the bottom to age 14 at the top. I framed the sports half of the poster in old, broken hockey sticks to convey the message that sports also helped shape me and my world.”

Robert’s creation was driven by the developmental process defined earlier. As he himself said, “I think two people I owe a great deal of credit to helping me become who I am are my mother and father. They have been there to support me through good and bad. They have taught me some of the most important lessons in life, including having good manners, handling adversity and achieving my potential.” Another person Robert credits is, not surprisingly, his hockey coach. He says the coach has taught him how to follow directions, take charge in situations and work harder than others. Today, Robert is captain of his team.

In Robert’s stories are kernels of advice for all those who mentor youth, helping them down the developmental pathway toward identity achievement. They include the following tips.

  • Encourage young people to pursue a wide range of interests and a sampling of activities, relationships and personal traits.
  • Support them as they adjust to separation from their parents and learn to solve problems on their own or to seek help from others.
  • Teach and role model appropriate social skills that will aid them in establishing and maintaining friendships within their schools and broader communities.

When we do those three simple things, we help children emerge as confident, resourceful and caring young adults able to easily, confidently and proudly articulate, “Who I am!”