The Search for Identity in Adolescence

The search for identity in adolescence is the most important task of this stage. If it's not well managed, it can lead to a vital crisis.
The Search for Identity in Adolescence

Last update: 07 April, 2022

Adolescence is characterized by being a period reserved for reflection on oneself. Teenagers wonder who they are and what they can do in life. Undoubtedly, the search for identity in adolescence is one of the most important tasks of the life cycle, and it’s the main task during this specific period.

Identity in adolescence, a stage of change

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines adolescence as the vital period that goes from 10 to 19 years; in which a series of biological and psychic changes originate that culminate in the transition from childhood to adulthood. In other words, it’s a transition stage: The individual’s no longer a child, but neither is they an adult.

For its part, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) understands that adolescence is a complex stage and that it can, in turn, be subdivided into early and late adolescence.

In the early stage, from 10 to 14 years old, the most striking changes take place–the biological ones; while in the later stage, from 15 to 19, the capacity for analytical and reflective thinking is developed. However, it’s in this last period that the consumption of alcohol and drugs arises more frequently.

“People often say that they haven’t found themselves yet. But the self isn’t something you find, it’s something you create.”

-Thomas Szasz-

Adolescence is a sociocultural fact

The anthropological and psychological currents and, in general, the social sciences, consider that adolescence isn’t a universal fact (unlike what is called puberty). Adolescence is a young concept that has been formed as a result of the prolongation of the coexistence of children and parents.

Teens sitting on the ground and laughing.

Due to the importance that has been given to the education and training of the individual, family life is prolonged and, with it, economic and personal independence has been delayed.

However, this isn’t the case in all cultures. In some parts of the world, many children have to start working at an early age. Therefore, they directly access the world of adults, without the option of enjoying adolescence.

The search for identity in adolescence is a vital task

According to Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, according to which personality would develop in stages, adolescence corresponds to the formation of identity. Erikson called this stage “search for identity vs. role dispersion”, and it coincides with the crisis of adolescence.

The main task of adolescence is for the adolescent to acquire an identity to which they commit, the idea of self, and consequently, an increase in confidence in their self-concept. The adolescent needs to confirm that the way they see themself has continuity with the past and that, furthermore, it fits with the perception that others have of them.

However, if the adolescent doesn’t achieve this, they may find themself on the other side of the scale and suffer role dispersion. During adolescence, this internal struggle of not really knowing who we are and not knowing if what we think we are fits with the opinion of others can cause severe anxiety disorders.

Influential factors in the search for identity in adolescence

Of course, the search for identity is influenced by various factors:

As for psychologist James Marcia, his theory of identity defines four levels in the conformation of identity according to the presence or absence of commitment or crisis:

  • Identity achievement. Despite the crisis they’ve suffered to find their identity, they finally express a commitment to the decisions they’ve made, confirming said identity.
  • Exclusion. They commit to their personal identity, but they haven’t suffered difficulties (ie, crises), as they’ve constructed that identity through the choices of others.
  • Identity confusion. There’s no commitment, that is, the adolescent doesn’t find or accept an identity, and doesn’t set goals, so there’s no crisis either.
  • Moratorium. They haven’t yet found a commitment, despite the crisis they’re experiencing, although they’ve focused on solving it.

The involvement of parents in the search for identity in adolescence

Frequently, literature and cinema have shown us the eternal rivalry of adolescents with their parents, the reasons for the revelation being the excess of limits or even the possible repression of their way of being.

Teen girls taking a selfie.

However, from the social sciences, it’s believed that parents can play a very favorable role when it comes to shaping the adolescent’s identity. For example, the fact that parents accept the questions that their adolescent children ask them and are flexible in the face of the changes they experience can facilitate this transition stage.

The formation of identity: Key to social adaptation

According to Shaffer, establishing a personal identity is essential for personality development and, ultimately, for learning adaptive behaviors. Therefore, those adolescents who acquire a personal identity will adapt better to social situations, will develop self-confidence, will relate better, and will have fewer behavioral problems.

For adolescents, deciding what studies and what profession to choose and, finally, what path to follow in life, undoubtedly generates great uncertainty. Ultimately, the choices and decisions we make shape how we’re perceived. And our identity is consolidated not only through our self-concept, but also by how others see us.

For this reason, adolescents must know how to know themselves and, thus, discover what they like, their interests, their desires, and their way of being in the world to, ultimately, shape their identity.

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