Adolescent Identity Exploration
Adolescence is the period of life between the onset of puberty and the full commitment to an adult social role. This period of life is known for the formation of personal and social identity (Figure 1). Like toddlers, adolescents must explore, test limits, become autonomous, and commit to an identity, or sense of self. Different roles, behaviors, and ideologies must be tried out to select an identity. Role confusion and inability to choose vocation can result from a failure to achieve a sense of identity.
Egocentrism in adolescents is a self-conscious desire to feel important in peer groups and receive social acceptance. Since choices made during adolescence can influence later life, high levels of self-awareness and self-control in mid-adolescence will lead to better decisions during the transition to adulthood. Three general approaches to understanding identity development include self concept, sense of identity, and self-esteem.
Early in adolescence, cognitive developments result in greater self-awareness. This leads to greater awareness of others, and their thoughts and judgments. Adolescents also develop the ability to think about abstract, future possibilities and the ability to consider multiple possibilities at once.
Adolescents can conceptualize multiple 'possible selves' they could become as well as long-term possibilities and consequences of their choices. Differentiation occurs as an adolescent recognizes and distinguishes the contextual influences on his/her own behavior and the perceptions of others. Adolescents can begin to qualify their traits when asked to describe themselves. Differentiation becomes fully developed by mid-adolescence.
The recognition of inconsistent content in the self-concept is a common source of distress in these years, but this distress may benefit adolescents by encouraging further structural development.
Sense of Identity
Unlike the conflicting aspects of self-concept, identity represents a coherent sense of self that is stable across circumstances and includes past experiences and future goals. Erik Erikson determined that 'identity achievement' resolved the identity crisis in which adolescents must explore different possibilities and integrate different parts of themselves before committing to their chosen identity. Adolescents begin by defining themselves based on their crowd membership, and then hone in on a personal identity. Media eventually extends this by exposing adolescents to the self-image factor.
Self-esteem is one's thoughts and feelings about one's self-concept and identity. Children who are raised female are often taught that their sense of self is highly linked to their relationships with others; therefore many adolescent girls enjoy high self-esteem when engaged in supportive relationships with friends. The most important function of friendship here is having someone who can provide social and moral support. Children who are raised as male, on the other hand, are often taught to value such things as autonomy and independence; therefore many adolescent boys are more concerned with establishing and asserting their independence and defining their relation to authority. High self-esteem is often derived from their ability to successfully influence their friends.
Sociocultural influences are playing a different role identity formation now than they have in the past. Sociocultural influences on adolescents traditionally appeared in the form of resources available to explore identity choices as well as options for personal commitments. This influence is becoming less significant today due to the growing acceptance of identity options that were once less popular. The changing sociocultural situation is forcing individuals to develop a unique identity based on their own aspirations.
The type of relationship that adolescents have with their parents has a significant role in identity formation. When a solid and positive relationship exists, adolescents are more likely to feel freedom in exploring identity options. However, when the relationship is not as close or supportive, and the adolescent fears rejection from the parent, he/she is more likely to feel less confident in forming a separate, personal identity.
Adolescents that have a post-secondary education tend to make more concrete goals and stable occupational commitments. Academic work has an impact on identity and can be beneficial for an individual. Adolescents receive education on different approaches and paths to take in the process of identity formation.
Changes in the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in the limbic system make adolescents more emotional than younger children and adults, and more sensitive to rewards and stress. Other cognitive development have an impact on identity formation as well. When adolescents are able to think abstractly and reason logically, they have an easier time exploring and contemplating possible identities. When an adolescent has advanced cognitive development and maturity, he/she tends to resolve identity issues more easily than peers who are less cognitively developed. When identity issues are solved more quickly, time and effort is freed up for developing that chosen identity. Having a solid identity earlier is a preferred situation, and is one of the first steps in forming the desired life and goals of an adolescent individual.