How Do Teens Form Their Identity?

· June 14, 2018

Adolescence is the period from the beginning of puberty (13 or 14 years old) to age 18. People usually think of it as a difficult stage, but many people go through adolescence without any problems. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that teens form their identity during this time and they go through a lot of changes.

The objective of these identity changes is for teens to become independent. It’s preparation to enter adult life, with all its rights and responsibilities. So, how do teens form their identity? James Marcia, with his theory of adolescent identity, will shed some light on the process.

Theory of identity during adolescence

James Marcia describes four identity statuses. These four statuses show the status of the individual with respect to their identity. They are born of two circumstances:

  • Having experienced, or not experienced, an identity crisis.
  • Having made, or not made, vocational, ideological, or personal commitments. 

What is an identity crisis? The world presents teens with a wide variety of options to construct their identity. They start to explore their world when they become aware of these options. They explore their likes and dislikes, romantic relationships, gender, friendships, etc. This search can give rise to what we call an identity crisis.

What does it mean to make commitments in terms of identity? Well, after teens explore their options, they’ll sift through them and adopt some as their own (ideas, commitments, values, etc.)

This acceptance implies a commitment to certain ideological, personal, and vocational concepts. These concepts will shape their identity and self-image. That, in turn, will strongly influence them in adulthood.

Next, we’ll go over the four statuses that come up when these two dimensions meet. They are identity diffusion, moratorium, and identity achievement, and foreclosure.


How do teens form their identity?

Identity Diffusion

This is when teens haven’t made any commitments and are not exploring their options. In this stage, they’re not worried about their identity. It will end at some point because they’ll feel obligated to develop a personal identity, whether due to an identity crisis or social pressure.

Moratorium

In normal development, this stage tends to come after identity diffusion. Teens are in moratorium when they’ve had an identity crisis, but still haven’t committed to anything.

Here they’re searching, exploring, and trying different options. Adolescents do this without choosing any particular one with certainty. This can actually be a dangerous stage. If an adolescent has damaged self-esteem, they might turn to addictive substances (alcohol, smoking, marijuana, etc.)

Identity Achievement

Adolescents in this stage have overcome the moratorium stage. They have also made certain ideological, vocational, or personal commitments. After an identity crisis and exploration of their options, they choose the path they want to follow to keep developing as a person.

All of this leads teens to form their identity and have an idea of who they are. After this, they feel sure of themselves and tend to show positive changes on a behavioral and personal level.

Walking alone in the woods.

Foreclosure

So what happens if an adolescent never has an identity crisis? Sometimes, they won’t explore their options and go through the moratorium stage. When that happens, the way teens form their identity will be through the advice or direction of an adult.

People in this stage tend to be better adjusted than those in moratorium or identity diffusion. Nevertheless, it is still a very unstable state and much less secure than identity achievement.

Final conclusions

Personal identity is not a single unit, nor is it an irrevocable process. This is important to remember when thinking about how teens form their identity. It’s a time for making decisions, but more than anything it’s a time for experimentation.

When we say it is not a single unit, we mean that the process can follow different rhythms in different aspects of our identities. A person might have strong commitments that define their professional identity, but their political identity could be in the moratorium stage.

It’s also important to understand that it isn’t irrevocable. It’s a dynamic process of giving and taking. Once an adolescent reaches identity achievement or foreclosure, they might have a new identity crisis.

That would shape a new identity different from the one before. For example, someone who started studying their degree in medicine might reevaluate their situation and switch to studying law.

A teen with headphones looking up at the sky.

After looking at James Marcia’s studies and theory, we can draw some general conclusions. One is how important it is for adolescents to explore the world around them. The other is that the way they face the task of exploration is transcendent.

As adults, we should give adolescents space to explore ideas about what is good and bad. That way, they will explore because they are curious, and not because they are being rebellious. We have to realize that’s the only way teens form their identity.

If adults force adolescents to make arbitrary commitments, they end up in the foreclosure stage with an unstable identity that might prevent them from every reaching identity achievement.