A contemporary of Sigmund Freud, developmental theorist Erik Erikson differed from Freud in his beliefs about the development of the personality. While Freud claimed that the basic personality is set by age five, Erikson believed that personality continues to develop throughout the life span. According to Erikson, development occurs in eight stages. The fifth stage, identity vs. role confusion, takes place during adolescence.
Identity vs. Role Confusion
The central goal for adolescents is to develop an independent identity. From career aspirations to personal values, the adolescent must figure out what works for her. The goal of this stage is fidelity, according to Erikson, in which the teen enters adulthood with a strong sense of self. Successful completion of this stage is essential for the first stage of adulthood, intimacy vs. isolation.
Peer Group and Parents
The peer group is of primary importance during the adolescent years. While children rely on their parents to teach them right from wrong and provide a moral compass, teenagers must learn to rely on themselves. They break away from the family to experiment with relationships, jobs, social interactions and responsibilities. Many teens try on numerous identities, swinging back and forth between very different sets of friends. The parent's job is to provide the teenager a safe haven for his explorations, maintaining open communication, setting essential boundaries and giving advice when needed, but allowing the child to strive for his own individual identity.
The search for an identity is not always resolved during the teen years. Parenting methods that are either overly harsh or lax, as well as intense life circumstances that force the teenager to assume adult responsibilities, can lead to unsuccessful and even damaging resolutions. In foreclosure, the adolescent simply stops trying to develop an individual identity and accepts the one handed to him by his parents or the situation. Alternatively, the adolescent might assume a negative identity, automatically adopting one that is the polar opposite of what his parents or society prefer. Identity diffusion occurs when the teenager fails to set goals, values or aspirations. He tries on too few identities and becomes apathetic about the process. He simply decides not to decide and puts off the search for an identity until later. Any of these resolutions make it impossible for the young adult to successfully enter the next phase, in which the focus shifts to forming intimate adult relationships.
Successful resolution occurs when the adolescent develops fidelity. Having experimented with numerous identities, she finds and commits to the one that it is a personal fit. Through practice, she fine-tunes her core beliefs and values, which will create a road map and moral compass for her future. Armed with self-confidence and a healthy sense of who she is, the young adult is ready for the complex exercise of putting others first, a skill that is learned in the next phase of development.