Identity is an individual's self definition that focuses on enduring characteristics of the self. In an established identity, the individual is able to explain the origins of these self-defined characteristics and the influences behind those origins. Complete identity includes a clarification of one's morals, ethics, and standards, as well as a commitment to a future occupation. Many development theorists see identity development as a means for an individual to explain the present as a bridge from the past to the future.


The major processes that comprise identity development are addressed by Erik Erikson (1902–1994) in his theory of psychosocial development. Most psychologists appreciate Erikson's theory because of its “utility in many professional arenas [such as] clinical, theoretical and empirical” (McKinney, 2001).

Erikson was interested in explaining the development of the healthy personality, based on an enduring ego identity. The healthy ego identity evolves through a process of discovering the self within the various influences of a personal history, societal history, and social contexts. For Erikson this evolving of the ego identity takes place through stages of psychosocial development. In each stage, the psychological make-up of the individual interacts with the demands of the social context in a challenge that either brings about a healthy resolution or an unhealthy alternative. This age-related challenge is referred to as a crisis. Each of these crises represents a “direct reflection of the person's social maturity and societal expectations” (McKinney, 2001). All of the psychosocial stages are interdependent; the success of each earlier crisis is the foundation for the success of each later challenge.

Although identity is established in adolescence, the successful resolution of each previous psychosocial challenge contributes something to the make-up of the healthy ego identity. Infants learning trust are forming in their minds an enduring representation of the mother. This representation should guide growing children into understanding when to trust others and when not to trust them. Other childhood psychosocial challenges establish autonomy, initiative, and industry. Achieving these previous psychosocial functions facilitates establishing identity in adolescence.


Many theorists would agree that identity development begins with children establishing autonomy, recognizing that they are individuals separate from their mother. Autonomy and self awareness begins in the second year. It can be observed when children talk about themselves, using the concept of the self, when they resist control by parents, and recognize themselves in a mirror. Self concept starts to develop shortly after self awareness is established. Self concept is the rudimentary definition of self based on a collection of disconnected traits. The self concept relies on role models to suggest standards and preferences.

From 3 through 6 years of age, children nurture their self concept by making choices and following through on those choices. They experiment in this stage with doing things on their own. They are often told during this time period that what they have chosen to do is wrong. The shame that they feel in these situations leads to the beginnings of the self-evaluation that is so important in the next stage.

Across many cultures, middle childhood, from age 7 until the onset of puberty, is a time of increased responsibility and privilege. Children begin to learn what their culture deems important. More than in earlier years, they are involved in peer groups, putting them in a position to constantly compare themselves to others. When that comparison is favorable, they are inspired to work and accomplish more. When that comparison is not favorable, they may feel inferior to classmates. During this period self efficacy develops and becomes significant. Self efficacy is the attempt to assess one's worth through comparison with others.

According to Erikson, the most important process of identity development takes place during adolescence. During this time, individuals must establish their identity in order to make the transition from childhood to adulthood. Adolescents enter a psychosocial moratorium, which is a period of relative freedom from societal expectations. During this time, they feel free to experiment with different personalities and roles. From Erikson's perspective, everything that was established about self in childhood is re-evaluated in adolescence. Some of the components of the self concept, self worth, and childhood personality may be retained or rejected in the adolescent's search for identity. Adolescents have to internalize a comprehensive and consistent set of affirmations regarding their own strengths, weaknesses, values, and career choice. The positive influence of family and friends is important in this process, but the commitment must be made by adolescents as individuals. This process requires much experimentation and exploration, particularly in personality and vocational roles (Santrock, 2007).

The identity established during adolescence represents a major accomplishment. By young adulthood, individuals who have achieved their identity are prepared to adapt and contribute to society. That identity is expected to endure. However, many theorists who study identity achievement recognize that there is still much refinement, re-evaluation, and recommitment of identity in later life.


Although Erikson's theory of identity development is widely cited, other theories provide important knowledge about identity and its development. The attachment theories emphasize the value of the trust and security that a child learns from his/her mother in infancy. Social learning theories expand the constructs of self concept and self worth as the basis of self description in late childhood. Cognitive development theory describes the age-related processes leading to a child's limitation before adolescence and competence during adolescence for establishing identity. Researchers investigating Erikson's theory of identity development have provided important modifications to the theory.

Attachment Theory. Theorists such as Mary Ainsworth, who studied attachment in infancy, observed and explained concepts similar to those of Erikson. The description of attachment compares to Erikson's description of trust. In his theory, infants who have learned trust grow into children who accept that life has order and purpose. These growing children have a trusting and accepting relationship with their mother. Infants who have learned attachment grow into children who look to the mother for guidance and rely on her as a safe base for exploration. In both cases, these children's personality can be expected to have a basic confidence. Failure in attachment and in trust results in a confused child who is not sure about trusting parents and/ or may have little discretion in trusting others.

One difference in the two theories is that Erikson expected trust to be established in the first year. Ainsworth has shown that secure attachment can take as long as 18 months. Another difference is the strength of the influence on later development attributed to the mother-child bond. Ainsworth sees attachment as the most important influence on development. For Erikson, that influence is modified by the resolution of later psychosocial crises.

Social Learning Theory. As noted above, once self awareness is established, the self concept starts to develop. The self concept is the basic representation in children's minds of who they are and what they are like. Social learning theorists emphasize that the self concept is built upon the identification with role models, an assessment of self worth, and a preferred pattern in relating to the external world (Carver & Scheier, 1992).

Children learn to relate to the world through modeling and imitation of others, particularly role models. The same-sex parent is an influential role model for each child. Other role models in early childhood can be anyone the child admires. Children will identify with a role model and shape their behavior and tastes in imitation of that role model. The influences of a role model can affect individuals' personality, ambitions, interest, and tastes well into adulthood (Carver & Scheier, 1992).

Self worth is based on children's assessment of their capabilities in comparison to others. Children may feel that they are superior or inferior to others or may feel that they are capable but that others do not notice. Often the assessment is classified according to different areas of life such as sports, academics, or friendships. However, too many negative self assessments in the different areas may result in an overall feeling of helplessness.

The preferred pattern of relationships, influenced by the self concept, is different for individual children. Children seek social interaction in different ways. Although one pattern may be clearly seen as being more effective, some individuals are more likely to choose a pattern that is personally meaningful. For example, shy children may admire those children with more outgoing personalities but may continue to relate to others in a quiet manner.

The self concept can be a stronger motivator for behavior than an external reward. If children receive punishment in class for misbehaving, the punishment may not discourage them from repeating the behavior. If the children's see themselves as rebels, such a self concept would be encouraged by receiving punishment (Carver & Scheier, 1992).

Cognitive Development. The patterns of development that Erikson describes are related to what Jean Piaget (1896– 1980) and the cognitive psychologists recognize about age-related strategies of children in reasoning. There are limits in children's reasoning until adolescence. Before adolescence, individuals are not capable of the cognitive reasoning necessary in establishing identity.

Evidence of cognition in infancy shows in babies' recognizing their mother's voice and smell even from birth. This perinatal cognitive ability facilitates the familiarity that leads to trust. Babies are comforted by their mother's voice and feel secure in her presence.

In early childhood, the self concept is constantly changing because of cognitive limitations. Piaget calls the period between 2 and 6 years of age the preoperational stage. Children at this age cannot use logical strategies. Therefore, they tend to focus on only one feature of an object. Also, children at this age do not understand the identity principle that some things do not change essentially even though they change one of their features. Even in describing themselves, children will focus on only one aspect of who they are without qualifying that aspect or relating it to another aspect of self. When preoperational children try to describe themselves, they cannot be sure they will not change.

During middle childhood, children develop the capacity for logical reasoning, but only in situations with concrete examples, which marks this as the cognitive stage of concrete operations. Children are increasingly capable of classifying and cross-classifying objects and characteristics. As they describe themselves in the stage of concrete operations, more qualifying occurs on the different attributes of self. Also, these individuals express an expectation of stability in their characteristics. Establishment of the psychosocial function of industry relies on the use of these newly learned cognitive capabilities. Through classification, children can identify their own strengths and weaknesses while being able to rank peers on their related abilities. Also, children can recognize that being inferior in one area does not make one inferior in another.

During adolescence individuals can reason beyond the concrete. Adolescents have increased capabilities for abstract reasoning. With this ability comes awareness that they have a future for which they need to prepare. This unexpected realization is the beginning of the identity crisis.

Other Identity Theories. Many theorists investigating identity achievement have expanded or modified Erikson's ideas. James Marcia investigated the major influences on identity achievement and identified four possible outcomes or statuses of the identity crisis based on whether the crisis has been met and a commitment has been made.

As with Erikson, Marcia sees the identity crisis as beginning when adolescents recognize the need to establish an identity that can prepare them to meet the challenges of adulthood. Marcia agrees with Erikson that adolescents need to explore the many possibilities in personality roles and career choices as well as lifestyles. Identity achievement is recognized as individuals gain a clear understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses and a clear set of personal standards.

For Marcia, true identity achievement is based on meeting the challenge and making the commitment. Some adolescents try to avoid the crisis; some try to avoid the commitment; some try to avoid both. If either the challenge or commitment is avoided, role confusion takes one of three forms. These three forms of role confusion in addition to identity achievement constitute the four identity statuses proposed by Marcia. Identity achievement is the first status. The second status is foreclosure, when the adolescent avoids the challenge by making a commitment without any exploration. This happens often when individuals surrender to the plans that their parents have made for their life. The third status is moratorium, when the youth perpetuates the exploration and challenge without making a commitment. Moratorium is not necessarily an unhealthy status. Because adolescence continues as long as society allows, the search for identity characterized by the moratorium status may continue into young adulthood. The fourth status is diffusion, when adolescents avoid the challenge and refuse to make a commitment. The danger of this status is that diffused adolescents are weak in resisting negative influences.

According to Santrock (2004), some experts investigating identity development challenge Erikson on several points. First, these experts have found substantial evidence that identity formation does not begin or end in adolescence. They also have found that it takes more time and is less dramatic than Erikson expected.

Later research found that moratorium may last into the college years. However, this finding does not contradict Erikson because Erikson, in his day, felt that more adolescents should attend college as a time of psychosocial moratorium. In contrast to the late 2000s, fewer adolescents attended college in the 1950s when Erikson was forming his theory. The age range he used to illustrate the identity challenge was appropriate for his time.


During grade school years, children are still building their self concept. Choosing the right role models is very important during this time. Also important is developing a sense of industry, knowing what one's capabilities are. The social interaction with peers plays a role in supporting the self concept. School adjustment interacts with the positive development of the self concept.

Children's self concept leads them to associate with peers and influences the way they relate to those peers. In trying to understand their competence, these children compare themselves with others. If that comparison leads to a sense of self competence, the children will want to associate and cooperate with other children more than if that comparison leads to a sense of incompetence. If children define themselves as good students, they will want to live up to that self concept. Children who see themselves as loners will be more content to stay away from other children. A teacher can encourage children to develop a positive self concept.

A major threat to the self concept and self esteem of a school-age child is grade retention. One common reason for holding children back one year in the early grades is that these individuals are too immature for age-appropriate grade placement. However, retention has not been shown to have any long-term benefits and it may actually harm the child emotionally. “Children rate retention as the third most horrible thing they can imagine” (Lawson, 2007, p. 89).


The development of gender identity leads to conceptual frameworks of perceived appropriate behavior and interests associated with gender. These concepts are influenced greatly by the same-sex parent who becomes a role model for establishing the appropriate gender role. The gender concepts developed in childhood will influence how identity is composed in adolescence. For adolescents from a minority ethnicity, the development of ethnic identity is an important part of identity achievement. In many cases, the preparation for adulthood is the first time that these adolescents have to confront their feelings about their background. While being exposed to alternative sources of group identity from the dominant culture, adolescents have to maintain connectedness with their own ethnicity. Researchers have found that those who establish and maintain an ethnic identity tend to have higher self esteem (Santrock, 2004).

Erikson found gender differences in vocational exploration with men more concerned with establishing a career and women more concerned about establishing a family. These claims were supported by research in the 1960s and the 1970s, but subsequent research has not found any support for gender differences. Women in the 2000s are just as likely to be career-oriented as men are (Santrock, 2007).


Successful identity achievement is developed through accepting traditional values and expressing them in a contemporary manner. Therefore, adolescents need the influence of parents for traditional values and the influence of friends for contemporary expression. However, too much influence from either parents or friends may interfere with the adolescents' personal commitment.

Parenting styles influence the achievement of identity in adolescence. A parenting style emphasizing high standards and high communication encourages adolescents' exploration in a supportive environment. A parenting style that emphasizes high standards but low communication may interfere with the healthy exploration of identity potential. Permissive parents who do not establish standards for adolescents are encouraging a diffused identity with no clear commitments (Santrock, 2004).


Teachers can enhance children's identity development at all grade levels by taking an interest in the individual students and asking them to describe their impressions of self. This can be done as part of an age-appropriate class assignment. In preschool, during group conversation, the teacher can ask the children to describe their favorite memory. Although their memories will not go back too far, what the children describe will convey the influences of their developing self concepts. In grade school, a writing assignment might relate to the individual children's likes and dislikes, their favorite heroes, or their capabilities. In high school, students can be given a research assignment to explore specific vocations or the world of work in general.

Teachers should watch for signs of learned helplessness in grade school. If children describe themselves as individuals who cannot succeed, they will shirk the challenges of the classroom. A teacher can intervene by encouraging such students one-on-one or by establishing classroom support groups (Woolfolk, 2007).

It is important that children are constantly given the opportunity to succeed at increasingly challenging tasks. Teachers should avoid inappropriate comparison or competition with others. Students should be encouraged to compete against themselves to improve upon their previous accomplishments. The teacher should take the student's failing as an opportunity to point out how many times the child has succeeded (Woolfolk, 2006).

The high school teacher should be careful not to give into stereotyped perceptions of adolescence. Most adolescents, even those who appear to be antisocial, are involved in healthy exploration. The high school teacher should take the attitude that these students are young adults with the expectation that they will behave as adults. Most adolescents will feel free to approach such a teacher with their problems and concerns. Also, treating the young people as adults will lead to their seeing disciplinary actions as a natural consequence for misbehaviors.


Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1992). Perspectives on personality (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.

Lawson, T. J. (2007). Scientific perspective on pseudoscience and the paranormal: Readings for general psychology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

McKinney, K. G. (2001). Identity formation. In W. E. Craighead & C. B. Nemeroff (Eds.), The Corsini encyclopedia of psychology and behavioral science (3rd ed., pp. 723–724). New York: Wiley.

Santrock J. W. (2007). Child development (11th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Woolfolk, A. (2007). Educational psychology (10th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.