The work of the adolescent years (ages 12 –18) is to develop personal identity, as different and separate from one’s parents. This is quite the task for a well- developed teen, let alone a teen who would not have had a pair of emotionally healthy parents (both of them) who did not help him/her to develop the first four attributes by age 12 or 13.
“Who am I?” is a question that many adults are asking themselves these days, because in their evolving years, they did not have all they needed for adequate emotional advancement. In an age of missing parents (especially fathers) and entitlement (the world owes me attitude) the obtaining of personal identity is a challenge. Many have lost the art of personal communication, the give and take of conversation on a deeper level than is achieved on a cell phone or an iPad. One does not get to share their goals and dreams, their personal thoughts and feelings and receive appropriate feedback from parents and others.
We also live in an age where in most cases, even if both parents live together with their children, both parents are working. The coming home from school to a glass of milk and a couple of cookies and a chat with Mom, no longer exists in most homes. In depth conversation with an entire family, around a dinner table has become rare, and the idea of family church attendance and the development of family traditions has gone by the wayside, along with party-line telephones.
Without adequate time for in-depth conversation about the world and how it works, about relational and spiritual issues, about the future and how each child can fit into it, without preparing the child to meet the challenges of school, of friendships, of intimate male-female relationships, children are left at a loss.
At my age (pushing 75) I look back to my childhood years and the family in which I grew up. I was raised mostly with both parents and my Maternal Grandparents. Today I can look in my China Cabinet, which was my mother’s, and see dishes that I remember my mother and grandma using on special events like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Both of our daughters remember their grandparents and great-grandparents, and they too remember those special dishes. On holidays now, I pull them out and they are used for the same foods for which my grandma used them. Our daughters always comment on them, and they know full well, that these treasures will be theirs when I am gone. The foods we eat on those occasions are those that our girls enjoyed as little ones. Tradition is important, because it reminds us where and from whom we came. It adds to our sense of security and identity.
Have you thought about your growing up years and what traditions you experienced then that are still being used in your family today? If you have none from your early years, a great suggestion is to develop traditions with your current family.
During adolescence, children explore their independence and develop a sense of self. Those who receive proper encouragement and reinforcement through personal exploration will emerge from this stage with a strong sense of self and feelings of independence and control. Those who remain unsure of their beliefs and desires will feel insecure and confused about themselves and the future. In addition, those who have not been able to develop TRUST and the following stage AUTONOMY, are unsure about decision-making as they age, and do not feel solid about the way they should progress in most arenas of life. Should they not have adequate parental support and directives, they tend to look to peers and choose to identify with them, looking for acceptance. This leaves them with personal CONFUSION.
When psychologists speak of identity they are referring to all of the beliefs, ideals, and values that help shape and guide a person's behavior. Completing this stage successfully leads to FIDELITY, which Erikson described as an ability to live by society's standards and expectations.
While Erikson believed that each stage of psychosocial development was important, he placed a particular emphasis on the development of ego identity. Ego identity is the conscious sense of self that we develop through social interaction and becomes a central focus during the identity versus confusion stage of psychosocial development. Of course in this process, immediate family (parents, grandparents and siblings, have a dramatic part to play. According to Erikson, our ego identity constantly changes due to new experiences and information we acquire in our daily interactions with others. As we have new experiences, we also take on challenges that can help or hinder the development of identity. This, of course, shows the importance of the relationships we develop.
Our personal identity gives each of us an integrated and cohesive sense of self that endures throughout our lives. Our sense of personal identity is shaped by our experiences and interactions with others, and it is this identity that helps guide our actions, beliefs, and behaviors as we age.
Look carefully at your relationships. Are they assisting you to become an emotionally healthy individual who can enjoy relationships that are beneficial to you and to others? Were you able to converse in-depth with your parents and other family members, or has your identity been at least partially sculpted by others you have met? Do you know who you are apart from others, or do you look to others to determine what decisions you will make and behaviors you’ll adopt?
Identity development is extremely important as you move on to adulthood, to careers, to intimate relationships and to parenting, preparing your children for adulthood.