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Forging an Identity

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Within this essay the idea that identity is forged mainly through crisis and commitment situations will be discussed and presented. This theory will be explored in detail through a review of the situations that adolescents find themselves in while searching for a personal identity. Psychological models and research will be evaluated, as well as personal experience, in order to account for why the crisis and commitment theory is the most apt.

When children reach the developmental stage of adolescence, commonly between the ages of twelve and twenty years old, they enter a period of great change in their life. As well as physical and psychological changes, they are subject to social and cultural changes. Adolescence may be described as a time for adapting to changes in life situations successfully, in order to further a socially acceptable and self-fulfilling life direction. A certain amount of individuality may have already been formulated due to personal life experiences but these will either be reinforced or disregarded once a child enters the time of crisis and commitment. (Sdorow, L.M. 1998 pp129-130)

The biological changes that occur during adolescence play a large role in the confusion of the identity crisis period. Those being influenced by the mechanistic model of thought on the subject may claim that observable behaviour is at the heart of teenage turmoil. Although changes in body shape and size, as well as voice and vocabulary are important, they are just a part of the overall situation. A more psychoanalytical approach to the process of forging an identity would cover the influences of not only the biological changes but also the psychological and social changes. (Sdorow, L.M. 1998 pp129-130)

The four levels of forging an identity can be described as identity diffusion, identity foreclosure, the moratorium period and identity achievement. Identity diffusion is where a child does not explore their self or commit to any identity during their adolescent years. Identity foreclosure can be described as when the goals and life directions are chosen for the child. The child does not go through the process of personal exploration. A child who suffers identity foreclosure has not been given the opportunity to experience an identity crisis within their teenage years. The moratorium period is a term used to describe the process of experiencing an identity crisis. A child dealing with their identity crisis can be said to be going through their moratorium period. Moratorium can also be described as a time of exploring; within the moratorium period a child will survey the many choices that are available to them. Identity achievement is when the full identity of a child is achieved and realised within adolescence. The child has gone through the identity crisis and developed self-realisation. (Mussen, P.H. and Conger, J.J. and Kagan, J. 1979 p499)

The process of forging an identity can be seen as a time of identity versus role confusion. What this statement means is, an adolescent must go through a period of confused roles in order to gain a personal identity. An identity crisis must occur in order for an identity to be formed and the progression to the next life stage achieved. (Sdorow, L.M. 1998 p132)

The adjustment to a new mind as well as body is part of the role confusion. Another contributing factor to the confusion surrounding identity formation is the process of adapting to a new social world. Within this new social world others are forever evaluating personal values and social behaviours. (Sdorow, L.M. 1998 p132)

Many adolescents are disheartened when they meet with the real world of social evaluation. Parents who hide their young children from the judgements of others are making later disillusions worse. (Specht, R. and Craig, G.J. 1982 p196)

Visual bodily changes are often areas of attack from social judgement. Through personal observation it can be said that early developing males have the least trouble dealing with their new bodies. Late developing males tend to be less confident, either withdrawn or attention seeking and have low self esteem. Early developing females suffer from the unhappiness that accompanies the increased weight of becoming a woman as well as menarche. Late developing females also have much discontent; they suffer from a lack of confidence with their still childlike bodies. They may also find themselves less sexually attractive in a time when sexual emotions are being explored by both sexes. Sexual identity is a very important element in the forming of a strong ego identity. (Mussen, P.H. et al., 1979 pp494-499)

If an adolescent is unprepared for the physical changes and their subsequent social problems, they may suffer emotional distress. Being made to feel self-conscious by parents and peers will only heighten the distress and instability. (Sdorow, L.M. 1998 p131)

All areas of the identity formation process discussed thus far have had some very definite components of crisis and commitment. Change always brings conflict whether it is within the individual or socially, but this should not be seen as a negative factor. The frequency and extent of serious identity crisis in young people has been exaggerated and unfairly focused upon. (Mussen, P.H. et al., 1979 p497)

The period of crisis and commitment within adolescence should not be regarded as unconstructive. The role confusion that is experienced during adolescence should not be oppressed. This period offers the chance for increased growth in many areas and the opportunity for productive conflict. Repression of this period in personality development may lead to identity foreclosure. (Specht, R. et al., 1982 p194) Failure to form a personal identity leads to distress and depression. (Taylor, S. and Goritsas, E. 1994 p229)

Abstract thoughts and the ability to question oneself are also areas that may produce crisis and conflict. If a child who has reached adolescence feels depressed, due to the new mind they have just developed, they have the ability to question their situation like never before. With the formation of operational thought that accompanies adolescence, teenagers are now in the position to think seriously about and question, ethics, politics and religion. Areas that may have already been enforced upon the child are now open to personal, internal debate. (Sdorow, L.M. 1998 p132) (Mussen, P.H. et al., 1979 p496)

An adolescent that forms ethical or religious beliefs independent of those held by their parents or guardians may be open to yet further crisis. This is where we enter the social area of identity formation. (Sdorow, L.M. 1998 p132) Authoritarian parenting may not only enforce identity foreclosure it may also induce serious conflict and emotional crisis. Ideal parents would be strong, affectionate, supportive, and avoid being overly intrusive or demanding. The ideal parent would also create moderate, fair rules that are adhered to by both child and parent. (Mussen, P.H. et al., 1979 p499)

Personal values and individual personality styles must be allowed to occur in those going through the period of role confusion. Adolescents need to play out different roles, in order to find one that truly suits them and helps them fit into where they want to be socially. (Peterson, C. 1989 p343)

Parents or guardians are sometimes a major contributor to the crisis, conflict and commitment problems a child has when trying to forge a personal identity. When an adolescent moves from depending solely on their parents, to becoming more independent, some parents find it hard to deal with. When a teenager starts looking more to peers for guidance some parents feel inadequate and betrayed. In fact, the crisis and frustrations that the parents are going through is quite often vented on the adolescent, making their struggle harder. (Sdorow, L.M. 1998 p132)

Parents who set few rules, fail to discipline and do not supervise adolescents tend to encourage negative identities to form within the adolescent. These negative identities promote anti-social behaviours. (Loeber, R. and Dishion, T. 1983 pp68-99) Adolescents wishing to be rebellious towards society may also choose negative identities. This is what would be called the use of a negative identity for a harmful outcome. Those wishing to leave their options open and have more control over their identity crisis may also chose negative identities. This would be the process of choosing a negative identity in order to obtain a successful and fulfilling outcome. Unfortunately those adolescents who feel that there are insufficient rewards for progressing may also choose unconstructive identities. (Specht, R. et al., 1982 p195)

Overbearing and authoritarian parents produce a lack of self-identity. Those adolescents lucky enough to go through their teenage years with parents who are authoritative should reach identity achievement at the end of adolescence. This may even occur without too many of the unproductive aspects that can sometimes be found in the moratorium period. Authoritative parents are those who encourage adolescents to help make family, as well as personal decisions. This style of parenting would include giving the adolescent the right to question and to be different. A teenagers self esteem is heightened by a parent showing concern about problems, encouraging the child to participate in joint family activities and by allowing the adolescent limited freedom. (Harter, S. 1990) (Santrock, J.W. 1994 pp359-367) The granting of psychological autonomy is very important for a child becoming an adult. (Newcombe, N. 1996 p450)

It would seem the moratorium period must include some aspects of conflict and crisis in order for certain commitments to be formed. This dedication to personal values and social behaviour develops healthy young adults that have achieved their own identity. Those who face their identity crisis and are supported while doing so, move through the moratorium period and reach identity achievement. Those who do not confront their identity crisis or are oppressed by authoritarian adult figures, suffer either identity foreclosure or identity diffusion. Individual exploration, crisis and commitment help achieve awareness of self and personal identity. (Peterson, C. 1989 p344) (Mussen, P.H. et al., 1979 p499)

The theory that identity is forged through crisis and commitment situations appears to be correct. The changes that occur within the period of adolescence all seem to contain elements of crisis and the need for overcoming this. Once overcome, a period of re-committing is required. Failure to re-commit shows malfunction in the obtainment of a personal identity.

The biological, cognitive, emotional and social changes that occur during adolescence all need to be dealt with in order for identity achievement to transpire. Biological changes cause social disruption that leads to inner conflict. Children unprepared for this situation may suffer emotional distress. The formation of operational thought leads to personal ideals and beliefs that may not be shared by the majority of society or the adolescent's parents. This is another area of conflict and inner crisis that, for the first time in the child's life, can be personally evaluated. Parents, peers or social groups may choose to make this time of emotional crisis more difficult, leading to distress and lack of commitment to the child's new identity.

Adolescent's who are prepared for the life changes and who have caring parents or guardians seem to be at an advantage when it comes to dealing with the identity crisis. Those who are supported while exploring themselves, and experimenting with the many life choices that have become available to them, seem to find it easier to commit to their new personality and reach their goal of identity achievement.


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Loeber, R. and Dishion, T. (1983) Early Predictions of Male Delinquency: A Review, Psychological Bulletin, 94, pp68-99.

Mussen, P.H. and Conger, J.J. and Kagen, J. (1979) Child Development and Personality, Fifth Edition, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, U.S.A.

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