This post is the fifth in a series about Erik Erikson’s Stage Theory of Psychosocial Development. If you would like to know more about this series, go here. To see the second post on stages 1 and 2, go here. To see the third post on stage 3, go here. To see the fourth post on stage 4, go here.
Stage 5: Identity vs. Role Confusion
Have you ever looked back on your teenage years and thought, “what was I thinking dressing like that?!” Or perhaps, do you have the same thoughts about your current teenage child? Or do you wonder why all of a sudden their friends seem to matter so much more to them than their own family members?
Rest assured, these are all natural aspects to this psychosocial developmental stage, which spans the age range of 12-18 years. In this stage, the teenager is seeking to figure out his identity – what he values, what circles he will move in, what his interests are, what he will commit to in life. This is all part of forming an identity. Teenagers are more interested in spending time with friends and on their interests as they form the foundation for the sort of person they are going to be in the adult world.
What others say and how they react to a teenager is very important in this stage. Teenagers remain very sensitive to the reinforcement (positive or negative) and encouragement that they will receive from their family, friends, teachers, and coaches. That’s why a deep sense of relationship needs to be fostered with your teenager so that he feels comfortable coming to you with the “tough stuff.”
At the same time, teenagers require enough freedom to make more choices than they were allowed in the past. Of course, with choices comes more responsibility, and a teenager should be made well aware of that. If a teenager is blocked from having more freedom to choose and move about as he will, he might end up fighting against that by hiding what he is doing or making choices that he knows others would disapprove of.
In short, a teenager coming to a sense of solid identity needs more freedom, more responsibility, and deeper and encouraging relationships with those who can guide him rightly. If a teenager does not end up successfully forming an identity at this stage, he ends up having role confusion: he is not sure of who he is, what he likes, what values he is committed to, what his interests in career options are, and he is left feeling disappointed and confused about who he is and lacking a sense of direction.
In therapy, the counselor would encourage parents to shift perspective and allow more freedom for their teenager and/or form deeper relationships with their teenager (according to what is lacking). At the same time, the counselor would probably give more autonomy to the teenager in sessions – making it clear that she will only share what is absolutely necessary with the parents. A counselor can help a teenager process through old relational processes that block the teenager’s ability to make social connections and help them become more aware of their strengths and interests and encourage their development and exploration within the context of the therapeutic relationship.