Understanding An Identity Crisis

For a phrase that we use way too often, let's explore what an identity crisis actually is!

Psychosocial development, especially that which attempts to explain identity formation in children did not emerge as a proper discipline within the field of psychology until the 1950s when Erik Erikson, prominent German psychoanalyst, published his thesis, Childhood, and Society.

The significance of this exposition lies in the fact that it caused psychological research to move away from regarding children as miniature adults and focusing on continuous development, something behaviorism and psychoanalysis had been set upon for more than a decade and instead attempted to explain development as an eight-stage process, at the end of which a particular virtue is acquired through conflict resolution. In this series, we shall discuss the fifth stage in great detail, attempt to explain adolescent development in terms of Erikson’s theory, analyze the parenting styles necessary for identity development and identify the factors that have been previously proven to affect identity development.

Erikson’s theory called the fifth stage of psychosocial development, the identity versus role confusion stage as one of the eight phases that humans undergo throughout their life. Beginning in late adolescence, individuals in this particular stage struggle with establishing who they are as a person and try to actively make coherent sense of their identity and role in society. Subsequently, this stage is regarded as one of the most crucial determinants of the individual’s future as our sense of who we are, our aspirations and ideals are what determines the course of our interpersonal relationships, religious, moral and political values.

However, if the individual is unable to resolve this inner conflict, they would experience a brief period of inner distress in which they will struggle with their idea of who they are and will be bound to explore different alternatives simply to find out which one makes them the most comfortable in their body. This state is what Erikson called an identity crisis. What follows as a result of this lack of conflict resolution is role confusion, a state in which the individual recognizes that they have failed to establish a ‘…unified sense of self’ (Collin, 2017) and consequently ‘…may appear to be a shallow, directionless and unprepared for the challenges of adulthood.” (Berk, 2007). 

Parenting roles and styles are crucial determinants of healthy identity development in adolescents; a certain warmth and openness are needed for the child to fully develop an identity that does not clash with the child’s perception of who they are. The best parenting style is one which allows children a certain amount of freedom and emotional strength to pursue their own goals and ambitions. It is important to note that a warm, affectionate parenting style that encourages open communication is significant in the development of a healthy identity since it not only allows adolescents to choose their own beliefs and values but that it ensures a certain autonomy which permits them to explore real-life situations but with advice and gentle guidance from parents.

A significant proportion of adolescents often find themselves struggling with the establishment of their identity, it is crucial for parents to be supportive and warm during this period to allow the child to confide and therefore, face their fears but also to understand that their behavior does not indicate that they are a lost cause but that they simply are confused. Something which they will slowly be able to resolve over time. This author believes that if more parents were aware of this phenomenon and its occurrence over the course of development, they can help their child avoid needless pain, confusion, and anxiety – helping them blossom into the best version of themselves.


Berk, L. E. (2007). Development through the lifespan. Boston, MA: Pearson Custom Pub.

Collin, C. (2017). The psychology book. NY, NY: DK Publishing.

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