8 minute read

Identity Development

Aspects of Identity

The process of developing an identity begins with the infant's discovery of self, continues throughout childhood, and becomes the focus of adolescence. Erik Erikson, a pioneer in the field of personality development, identified the goal of adolescence as achieving a coherent identity and avoiding identity confusion. Identity is multidimensional and may include physical and sexual identity, occupational goals, religious beliefs, and ethnic background. Adolescents explore these dimensions, and usually make commitments to aspects of their identity as they move into early adulthood. Periodically, adults may reevaluate and alter certain aspects of their identity as life circumstances change.

Identity development begins with children's awareness that they are separate and unique individuals. First indications of this awareness are evident in infancy when children begin to recognize themselves. For example, when researchers place a dot of rouge on a child's nose, two-year-olds who see themselves in a mirror will touch their noses (Bullock and Lutkenhaus 1990). That is, they recognize the reflected image as themselves. Also, the words "me," "I," and "mine" emerge very early in children's language. These findings are consistent with Erikson's psychosocial stage of autonomy versus shame and doubt, when infants establish their identity as independent persons.

During childhood, self-awareness grows and changes. Preschoolers describe themselves in terms of observable characteristics and behaviors, including physical attributes ("I have brown eyes"), preferences ("I like to ride my bike"), and competencies ("I can sing 'Itsy, Bitsy Spider"'). Between ages six and twelve, children begin to include less concrete aspects of the self in their descriptions. School-aged children talk about their feelings ("I love my dog") and how they fit into their social world ("I'm the best fielder on my team"). During Erikson's stage of initiative versus guilt children explore their skills, abilities, and attitudes and incorporate the information into their view of self.

The physical, cognitive, and social changes of adolescence allow the teenager to develop the identity that will serve as a basis for their adult lives. During Erikson's stage of identity versus role confusion, adolescents' description of self expands to include personality traits ("I'm outgoing") and attitudes ("I don't like stuck-up people"). The emergence of abstract reasoning abilities allows adolescents to think about the future and experiment with different identities.

James Marcia (1991) hypothesized that identity development involves two steps. First, the adolescent must break away from childhood beliefs to explore alternatives for identity in a particular area. Second, the adolescent makes a commitment as to their individual identity in that area. Marcia identified four "Identity Statuses" to describe the process of identity development. Some aspects of identity, especially among young adolescents, may be foreclosed. The foreclosure status is when a commitment is made without exploring alternatives. Often these commitments are based The act of playing "dress-up" is common during the childhood years. Girls may wear their mother's dresses, jewelry, and high-heel shoes to identify themselves as "grown-up women." (Françoise Gervais/Corbis) on parental ideas and beliefs that are accepted without question. However, adolescents often begin to question their ideas and beliefs and enter what Marcia called a "moratorium." The moratorium status is characterized by the active exploration of alternatives. This may be reflected in attending different churches, changing college majors, or trying out different social roles. Such exploration may be followed byidentity achievement. Identity achievement occurs when the adolescent has explored and committed to important aspects of their identity. Although adolescents explore multiple aspects of their identities, commitments to occupational, religious, or ethnic identity may occur at different times. Some adolescents become overwhelmed by the task of identity development and neither explore nor make commitments. This describes Marcia's diffusion status, in which adolescents may become socially isolated and withdrawn. Supportive parents, schools, and communities that encourage exploration in communities and schools foster identity achievement. Identity achievement is important because it is associated with higher self-esteem, increased critical thinking, and advanced moral reasoning.

The physical changes associated with puberty initiate adolescents' exploration of their physical and sexual identity. For females, an important component of their identity and worth is related to their physical appearance. The changes in the male body may not be as important as their timing. Early maturing males have advantages in athletics, hold more leadership roles in school, and are viewed more positively by peers and adults. The effects of timing for females are not as clear and may be less important in their development.

The exploration of a sexual identity occurs within the context of the "presumption of heterosexuality" (Herdt 1989) that exists in American culture. Heterosexual adolescents spend little or no time considering their sexual identity as anything but heterosexual. However, the same is not true for homosexual adolescents. In American culture the homosexual is often degraded and stigmatized. This cultural context makes forming a sexual identity for the homosexual adolescent more challenging than for the heterosexual adolescent. Following the pattern of identity development in general, homosexual adolescents may experience a period of confusion and exploration before accepting and committing to their homosexual identity. Adolescents who do not complete this process may feel isolated and guilty. This can lead to increased drug and alcohol abuse or even suicidal thoughts (Mondimore 1996). Regardless of orientation, the development of a clear sexual identity is important for the transition to Erikson's early adulthood stage of intimacy versus isolation.

The emergence of abstract thought in adolescence also permits the exploration of religious and spiritual beliefs. Sixty percent of adolescents report that religion is very or pretty important in their lives (Youth Indicators 1993). The development of a religious identity follows the same pattern as other aspects of the individual's identity. Even though the adolescent may eventually adopt beliefs that were similar to their childhood beliefs, the process of exploration is important in achieving a religious identity and avoiding foreclosure or diffusion.

When asked to introduce themselves, most adults will begin talking about their occupation or career. Three phases of career development have been described (crystallization, specification, and implementation) that are closely tied to the development of identity (Kail and Cavanaugh 2000). Although young children often say things like "I want to be a doctor," it is not until adolescence that career goals are clarified in the context of identity development. Young adolescents explore career goals that fit with their personality and interests. A thirteen-year-old who enjoys and excels at science may express interest in being a science teacher or a doctor. During this crystallization phase choices are tentative, and teens may explore a number of career options. By late adolescence, many teenagers make choices that limit career options by choosing a job or additional education and/or training (specification). With this the career path begins to be incorporated into their identity. Once individuals enter their chosen job or career (implementation), it becomes a part of how they see themselves.

Unlike most Caucasian adolescents, minority adolescents must decide the degree to which their racial or cultural background will be part of their identity (Phinney and Kohatsu 1997). Painful issues surrounding identification with a minority subculture, such as racism and inequality, can lead some minority adolescents to avoid the issue through foreclosure or diffusion. In particular, during early adolescence minority teenagers may deny any interest in their racial or cultural background. However, as they become more aware of the conflicts between their subculture and the dominant culture, minority adolescents often begin to explore their heritage. Interactions with other members of the same culture, and attendance at religious services or cultural celebrations, can increase the adolescents' knowledge and encourage a sense of pride in their ethnic background. Achieving a positive ethnic identity is associated with higher self-esteem and better grades, as well as better relations with family and friends. The most positive outcome appears to be achievement of a bicultural identity that allows the adolescent to function effectively in either setting (Phinney and Kohatsu 1997).

Identity achievement during adolescence serves as a basis for our adult expectations and goals for ourselves (Whitbourne 1987). As individuals enter early adulthood they use their current understanding of who they are to develop alifespan construct which serves as the link between the identity developed in adolescence and the adult self (Kail and Cavanaugh 2000). The lifespan construct is an integration of an individual's past, present, and culture. This construct includes a scenario and a social clock. The scenario is the individual's expectation of what they will do in the future (e.g., go to medical school and establish a practice in family medicine), and the social clock links these events to the age when they will happen (e.g., get married by age thirty). The experience people acquire throughout life leads to continuous modifications in the life construct. Nevertheless, adults who feel they have (to some degree) met their life goals are more likely to experience the sense of fulfillment that Erikson calledgenerativity in middle adulthood and ego integrity in old age.

Identity development is ultimately the result of a lifelong journey. The person that people ultimately become is unique, however the process by which identity develops is similar among individuals. Although identity development is most often associated with adolescence, each developmental stage offers opportunities for reevaluation and modification.


Bullock, Merry, and Paul Lukenhaus. "Who Am I? The Development of Self-Understanding in Toddlers."Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 36 (1990):217-238.

Herdt, Gilbert, ed. "Introduction: Gay and Lesbian Youth, Emergent Identities, and Cultural Scenes at Home and Abroad." In Gay and Lesbian Youth. New York: Harrington Park Press, 1989.

Kail, Robert V., and John C. Cavanaugh. Human Development: ALifespan View, 2nd edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000.

Marcia, James. "Identity and Self-Development." In Richard Lerner, Anne Peterson, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn eds., Encyclopedia of Adolescence (Vol. 1). New York: Garland, 1991.

Mondimore, Francis M.A Natural History of Homosexuality. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Phinney, Jean, and E. L. Kohatsu. "Ethnic and Racial Identity Development and Mental Health." In John Schulenberg, Jennifer Maggs, and Klaus Hurrelmann eds., Health Risks and Developmental Transitions during Adolescence. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Whitbourne, Susan. "Personality Development in Adulthood and Old Age: Relationships among Identity Style, Health, and Well-being." In K. W. Schaie ed., Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics (Vol. 7). New York: Springer, 1987.

Youth Indicators. "Trends in the Well-being of American Youth."Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993.

Eva G. Clarke

Elaine M. Justice

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 4