A Study on Erik Erikson's Theory on Identity Development

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Erikson is a leading psychologist in the field of development psychology who believed that development is a continuous process. He believed that psychological development was extended over eight stages. In this paper, we’ll be highlighting the stage of “Identity Vs Role Confusion.” This stage, which is fifth in order, is directed towards adolescents aged 12 to 18 years.

Erikson proposed that identity is formed in adolescence when the child chooses a path for himself based on his personality. When he realizes who he is and what he wants in life, he is able to pick out a role and a career. This is very important as it lays the basis for further development. Moreover, he argued that children who have successfully passed the previous stages have a higher chance of receiving positive results in this stage as well.

Erikson argues that teenagers in this stage experience identity crisis. They are not sure of who they are or what they want to achieve in life. They have previous ideas of what they can do based on their childhood experiences while simultaneously they have a new world of opportunities and options available to them now. Every child has his own unique experience of finding his identity. However, some might not be able to achieve it. The negative outcome of this stage is known as Role Confusion in which the child may feel lost. This might happen due to the limited exposure or if the child has not done well in the previous stages then he might feel directionless.

As the child continues to grow, there are changes in his self concept. The child starts seeing himself as a separate person and starts attaching qualities to his personality. He views himself in terms of social virtues for example being kind, humble or considerate. Previously he had qualities that were contradictory to each other but he did not know which one he really had but later in this stage, he realizes that he can be two things at once for example, he can be quiet in front of his family and can be very talkative with his peer group.

Apart from self concept, self esteem is changing as well. During this stage, some adolescents self esteem declines where as other adolescents experience high self esteem as they are able to do better in academics and their athletic abilities increase. Self esteem is different for both the genders. Females might develop low self esteem if they are concerned about their appearance. There are other factors such as parental relationships and ethnicity that also have an effect on the self esteem of adolescents.

There are four identity statuses. The lowest one is Identity diffusion followed by identity foreclosure, identity moratorium and the highest one is identity achievement. These statuses help us understand the path of identity and can help us recognize where exactly an adolescent lie on this stage. (Berk) Identity development can be affected by a number of factors including relationship with parents, peer ties, culture and community which will be further explored.

Case Study

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The child that was interviewed will be called Amna (the real name is not used here to maintain the confidentiality of the participant.) Amna is a 13 year old girl. She fits in the stage of identity Vs Role Confusion proposed by Erikson. She has two elder sisters with a vast age difference and doesn’t closely relate to either one of them. Amna aspires to be an actress and she realized this when she was 10 years old. She watched a lot of movies and got inspired by the actresses and now wants to be famous. When asked about her qualities, she answered that she is good in athletics because she can run faster than everybody in her class. She believes that she is very social and is liked by her peers. Amna was also asked whether she has looked at other career options and her answer was no. She had no particular reason for this answer. She felt like acting is what she would like doing thus, she never explored any other options. In addition to this, she kept referring to the life an actress as an ideal life focusing on the positive aspects only.

In the light of Erikson’s theory, one can see that Amna is in the beginning stages of identity development. She is in the identity foreclosure status as she has committed to one goal without exploring other options or without giving much thought to her own qualities. She has viewed a readymade identity of famous actresses and is now trying to mould herself accordingly. Her quest for identity is still in the budding stage. She is unsure of who she is as a person. When she was asked to describe herself, she could only point out facts such as her age, class, address etc. She also described herself in terms of her likes and dislikes. Moreover, her self esteem seemed to be high as she believed that her peers liked her. She also thought that her parents and peers approved her actions and enjoyed her company. She is more emotionally attached to her father and believes that he encourages her actions more.

One of the major influences on healthy identity development is the parenting style and parent’s relationship with the child. There are three main types of parenting styles; authoritative, authoritarian and permissive style. The authoritative style gives the parent control while also giving the child the power to take his own life decisions. In the authoritarian style the parent takes charge of the child’s actions and gives little or no freedom to the child to make his own decisions. Lastly, in the permissive style, the child is in command of his own actions. The parent has little or no control over his decisions.

If the child has a secure bond with his parents and they still give him freedom to make his own choices then the child will feel more confident in his own skin. He would be able to achieve his own identity. However, if the child shares a close bond with his parents but is not allowed to make decisions then the identity would not be fully formed. The children who receive less parental attention might suffer the negative outcome of this stage known as the role confusion stage. According to Baumrind, Parenting styles highly affect the identity and the self esteem of the child. She saw that the children who grew up in an Authoritative household were better at regulating their emotions; they also had high self esteem and were less likely to take part in deviant behaviors. Darling and Steinberg further supported Baumrind and argued that these parents were also able to understand the child’s perspective and were able to give him better explanation of his actions. Adolescents coming from such families also did better academically and were socially more successful. (Abrhiem, 2014)

Adolescents coming from an authoritarian family had low self esteem and were lacking social skills. Baumrind also observed that these children were more aggressive and had more difficulty in balancing their emotions. According to Barber and Harmon (2002), children who experience this kind of parenting style are more likely to experience psychological problems such as anxiety and depression because this style applies more psychological control. (Abrhiem, 2014)

Apart from parenting style and family, peer groups also have an effect on the identity development of the adolescent. According to Bosma and Kunnen, friends can help in avoiding development crisis and can also help in expanding social circle. A larger group would give the adolescent a chance to interact more with different people with different set of values, this can then help him to discover his own unique identity. Peers can further act as role models and can highly influence the decisions of their friends. This can even have a negative effect on the child, if the friends do not accept diversity then he may have to conform to their set of beliefs rather than finding his own individuality. (Para, 2008)

According to Berndt, high value friendships can have a positive outcome for the child. It can give him a chance to perform better academically and socially. It can also boast his self esteem and give him a greater chance for identity exploration. (Para, 2008) After assessing all the points discussed in this paper, one can conclude that there are a number of factors that affect the identity of an adolescent. Numerous researches have been conducted on Erikson’s theory and have argued that developing an identity is a complex process and each child has his own unique path of achieving it. However, Erikson succeeded in explaining us the process through his stage. The foundations of self concept and self esteem are also laid down during this phase which can be modified later on in life.

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