Teen Identity Development

Your identity is how you see yourself. That includes how you see yourself as an individual and within social groups, such as friends or family. 

Identity continues to evolve throughout your life. Having a positive sense of your own identity helps you to develop healthy relationships and feel a sense of direction and purpose in your life. 

During adolescence, young people transition from childhood to adulthood. They learn to develop independence. They are in the process of learning the roles they will play as an adult. 

When teens become adults, these roles play out in various ways, such as at work, with their families, friends, and in romantic relationships. That leaves adolescents with a lot to learn as they mature. 

It is healthy for teens to experiment with different identities while they are growing into the adults they will become. Most teens have some tumultuous experiences on their way to developing a unique identity, but eventually, they arrive at a positive and consistent sense of self. 

In large part, your sense of identity is determined by the choices and commitments you make. How secure you feel in your identity is influenced by how willingly your choices were made and how committed you are to the choices that you have made. 

A person with a less developed sense of identity may struggle to define their personal strengths and weaknesses and lack a clear sense of self. 

By contrast, a person with a well-developed sense of identity will be aware of their strengths, weaknesses, and uniqueness as an individual. 

This article will outline the process of identity development in teens. It will also describe some areas where teens may struggle and provide suggestions for supporting teens through these struggles. 

Identity Development Process

While most teens develop a stable sense of identity, the process is not always an easy one. There are many different paths they can take. 

Developmental psychologist James Marcia proposed a theory of self-identity development with four possible identity categories. Teens will belong to a distinct category depending on their degree of exploration and commitment to issues related to work, religion, and sexual behavior. 

Identity-diffusion: The person does not have any firm commitment regarding the relevant issues, and no attempt at committing is being made. 

Foreclosure status: The person has not engaged in any personal exploration concerning the relevant issues but has established an identity based on the values of others. 

Moratorium status: The person is actively exploring various choices but has not yet committed to any of them. 

Identity-achievement status: The person has formed a clear and consistent identity based on personal experiences. 

In this concept of identity development, periods of crisis are natural and even healthy. Crisis refers to a time of upheaval when values and choices are being reexamined. 

Ideally, the result of a crisis will be a period of exploration followed by a more firmly established commitment to your own choices and values. 

When teens actively explore various choices, it is natural for them to try different identities in different situations. They may behave one way with family members, in a different way with friends, and in yet another way online. 

This experimentation is not necessarily unhealthy. Allowing teens to try out new identities could let them find an identity that is a sincere expression of who they are.  

There are healthy limits to the kind of experimentation that parents may permit. If teens behave in an unsafe way, parents are justified in setting appropriate boundaries. 

Likewise, parents may maintain boundaries if teens behave in ways that conflict with the family’s values. In these situations, starting an open discussion with your teen may be helpful. 

Dangers of Role Confusion

Some teens become stuck or lost. They do not develop a sense of who they are or how they fit into society. 

The inability to make progress in developing an identity is what developmental psychologist Erik Erikson called role confusion. 

Role confusion may result in teens being unsure of who they are or where they “fit.” They may feel confused or disappointed by their place in the world. As adults, they may drift from job to job or relationship to relationship. 

It is never too late to address issues related to role confusion. However, addressing these issues early on presents people with the advantage of moving forward in emotionally secure, age-appropriate ways. 

Supporting Teens through Identity Development

Teens need to have the freedom to explore possible identities. Parents can help their teens by providing support and letting their teens know that their parents love them no matter what. 

That does not mean that teens need to be allowed to do whatever they like. Parents and teens need to have discussions about what kinds of exploration are healthy and acceptable. 

A discussion is not the same as a lecture. 

In a discussion, all parties share their thoughts and take turns listening and being heard. Teens may be receptive to discussions but shut down during lectures if they do not feel that the things they have to say are valued. 

Also, discussions allow parents to learn about their teen’s thoughts and experiences. When parents better understand their teens’ experiences, they can better support and guide their teens through making healthy choices. 

If past attempts to intervene have not helped, and your teen continues to engage in risky behavior, you may consider seeking professional help. 

Counseling and support are available to help teens and families struggling with multiple issues, including identity development.