Identity vs Role Confusion: 10 Examples (Erikson 5th Stage)

identity vs role confusion example and definition

Identity vs. role confusion is the fifth stage of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, which occurs during adolescence, typically between the ages of 12 and 18.

Such a transition from childhood to adulthood causes both physiological and psychological changes.

No longer a child but not yet an adult, a teenager faces various social demands and new roles that can be overwhelming. It is a time when they must discover who they are and their place in the world. 

During this formative period, individuals must construct their identities – including values, beliefs, and ambitions.

To do so, they may explore different social roles and experiment with various versions of themselves to discover who they are and their aspirations for life.

When individuals attain a sense of self in this stage, they build resilience and tenacity that allows them to go after their dreams.

Sadly, not establishing an identity during these formative years can result in insecurity and doubt about who they are and where they belong.

Overview of Identity vs Role Confusion Stage

Identity vs. role confusion is the fifth of eight stages in Erikson’s psychosocial development theory. It occurs during adolescence when individuals transition from childhood to adulthood and is characterized by developing a sense of self (Erikson, 1963).

Before adolescence, children learn various roles—student or friend, older brother or sister, son or daughter. Therefore, they must understand and integrate these roles into one holistic identity.

The child must understand that in different situations, with different people, they must communicate in different ways, but at the same time, maintain some fundamental holistic values that are unchanged regardless of the situation.

If an adolescent fails to integrate a core identity or resolve a serious conflict between two roles with opposing value systems, the result is what Erik Erickson calls identity diffusion (Erikson, 1963).

The key challenge during this stage is recognizing and embracing one’s true identity without confusing it with roles played in different contexts. So, the central question of this stage is:

“Who am I?”

(Erikson, 1963)

Success in this stage leads to a robust and coherent sense of self, a clear understanding of one’s values, and a feeling of purpose and direction in life.

Failure to resolve this conflict can result in identity confusion, a lack of clear direction or purpose, and feelings of anxiety or depression.

The fundamental virtue developed in this stage is fidelity, which involves commitment and loyalty to the self, others, and values (Orenstein & Lewis, 2021).

Besides, a momentous event associated with the identity vs. role confusion stage of development is the creation of social relations. 

During this stage, individuals create bonds with their peers and begin to interact with members of the opposite sex. These interactions can positively or negatively affect the individual’s developing sense of self.

10 Identity vs Role Confusion Examples

  • A young person discovers a career path that aligns with their values and interests, leading to the development of inner strength and a sense of purpose. Such an individual is likely to have a strong identity.
  • An adolescent learns to embrace their identity and accept themselves as they are, despite external pressures or expectations from others. It can result in a strong sense of individualism and self-worth.
  • As teenagers mature, they explore various lifestyle choices and role models to uncover their true identity. Through experimentation with different styles, teens are able to discover who they truly are as individuals.
  • A young adult questions their beliefs and values, refines them based on life experiences and creates a strong sense of self. Such an individual is likely to be resilient and determined.
  • Adolescents derive comfort from their social circle and gain a feeling of significance. This support, along with the resultant assurance, helps to facilitate personality maturation. Furthermore, teenagers can learn how to navigate relationships as well as mediate any conflicts that arise inside or outside the group.
  • A young person takes on a leadership role in their community, which provides them with a sense of purpose and identity. By taking responsibility, they can learn to be accountable and reliable. 
  • In their search for a sense of identity and purpose, adolescents may mistake the expectations of others as reflective of who they are. This misperception can lead to self-doubt, insecurity, and diminishing confidence in themselves.
  • A teenager conforms to the expectations of their peers and alters who they are in order to fit in, resulting in identity confusion.
  • An adolescent’s tendency to compare themselves with others can lead them down a path of envy and low self-worth. When teens fixate on the distinctions between them and their peers, they may find it difficult to remember who they are underneath all this external comparison.
  • A young adult is unable to resolve the conflicts between their various roles and values, resulting in a lack of identity formation.

Factors Causing Children to Succeed at Identity vs Role Confusion Stage

Positive role models, encouragement to be an independent, safe and supportive environment, open communication, and freedom to express themselves are important factors that can help children to succeed at the identity vs role confusion stage (Erikson, 1963).

Here are some ways parents, teachers, and caregivers can provide positive influences:

  • Positive Role Models: Having reliable role models, be it teachers, coaches, or family members, can play a paramount role in cultivating adolescents’ self-esteem and moral principles. By providing guidance that reinforces these positive attributes, we are offering our young people the best possible start to life.
  • Safe and Supportive Environment: When adolescents have the assurance that their school or community is a secure place to rely on, it helps them achieve success and gain confidence. If young people feel safe in their environment, positive experiences will naturally follow.
  • Open Communication: If adolescents have meaningful conversations with their parents, caregivers, and peers – openly discussing difficult topics with understanding and support -they are far more likely to foster a healthy sense of self-identity.
  • Freedom to Express Themselves: Allowing young adults an opportunity to explore their imaginations through art, music, or writing can provide them with a platform for self-expression and stimulate creativity.

Identity vs Role Confusion Positive Outcomes

The successful development of identity during the identity vs role confusion stage can help improve self-esteem, build stronger interpersonal relationships, improve physical health, increase creativity, and even improve academic performance.

Individuals with a clear sense of their identity tend to have higher self-esteem and self-confidence. As a result, they are less likely to feel anxious or depressed and more likely to pursue goals and take risks (Ragelienė, 2016).

Besides, when teens feel secure in their own identity, they tend to be more successful at forming relationships with others – as it allows them the confidence to communicate and express themselves. 

Establishing a strong sense of self-identity during adolescence can help to protect young people from developing depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues in the future (Potterton et al., 2021).

By helping them learn how to identify and express their emotions appropriately, they will have more effective coping skills when faced with stressors.

Possessing a solid sense of self can be beneficial to one’s physical health, as adolescents typically take more care in attending to their own desires.

Additionally, it can assist them in making wiser decisions and forming habits that will endure into adulthood.

Ultimately, teenagers cultivating a strong sense of identity can have an immensely positive effect on their academic outcomes (Brittian & Lerner, 2013).

When adolescents are in full awareness of themselves and what drives them, they can stay more motivated and dedicated to succeed in the long run.

Factors Causing Children to Fail at Identity vs Role Confusion Stage

Lack of support, negative role models, traumas, social pressure, or mental health problems could all contribute to an inability to successfully transition into adulthood (Erikson, 1963).

Here are some potential factors that can contribute to failure in this stage:

  • Lack of Support and Guidance: Without proper nurturing and guidance from loved ones, teens may be unable to find a secure sense of self. As a result, they might not have the courage to make choices in life or go out on their own.
  • Negative Role Models: Teens who observe peers engaging in hazardous activities may be more predisposed to follow their example and adopt the same negative habits. If adolescents are exposed to role models that lack a strong sense of identity, they may adopt similar behaviors. 
  • Trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences: Experiencing traumatic or otherwise negative events in early childhood, including but not limited to abuse, neglect, or loss, can be detrimental and have long-lasting repercussions on developing a child’s sense of self.
  • Social Media and Peer Pressure: Children who are exposed to negative influences on social media or who experience peer pressure may struggle to develop a strong sense of identity and may engage in risky behaviors.
  • Mental Health Issues: Without proper care and attention, teens suffering from mental health issues like anxiety or depression can find it hard to build a healthy sense of self-worth. Frequently they may resort to risky behaviors to cope with their underlying struggles.

Identity vs Role Confusion Negative Outcomes

Without developing a robust sense of identity, one may experience a loss of direction and purpose in life, find it hard to build meaningful connections with others, or simply be unable to decide on the right career path.

Having an understanding of who you are can be an invaluable tool when it comes to finding meaning and purpose in life.

When teens lack a sense of self-identity, they may experience feelings of isolation or role confusion, thus inciting them to indulge in risky actions (Brittian & Lerner, 2013).

Those without an apparent sense of identity may find it difficult to develop deep, meaningful relationships. Such a lack of close bonds can be tremendously challenging for individuals and their overall life journey.

Besides, without proper self-reflection and introspection, individuals may find themselves in an identity crisis later in life, without any sense of direction or understanding of their values and ambitions. 

Finally, without an established concept of selfhood, it can be difficult for individuals to make decisions regarding their career paths that align with their passions and convictions. It can lead to feelings of role confusion, frustration, and disappointment. 

Other Stages in Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory

StageAge RangeKey QuestionDescription
Trust vs. MistrustInfancy (0-18 months)“Can I trust the people around me?”The child develops a sense of trust in their caregivers if their needs are consistently met, or they develop mistrust if their needs are not met.
Autonomy vs. Shame and DoubtEarly Childhood (1-3 years)“Can I do things myself, or am I reliant on the help of others?”The child develops a sense of autonomy and control over their environment, or they develop shame and doubt about their abilities.
Initiative vs. GuiltPreschool (3-6 years)“Am I good or bad?”The child learns to take initiative and plan activities, or they feel guilty and anxious about their actions.
Industry vs. InferiorityChildhood (6-12 years)“How can I be good?”The child learns to feel competent and confident in their abilities through school, sports, and other activities, or they feel inferior and incompetent.
Identity vs. Role ConfusionAdolescence (12-18 years)“Who am I?”The teenager explores and develops their personal identity, or they experience confusion and uncertainty about their role in society.
Intimacy vs. IsolationYoung Adulthood (18-40 years)“Will I be loved, or will I be alone?”The young adult forms close relationships with others, or they experience feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Generativity vs. StagnationMiddle Adulthood (40-65 years)“How can I contribute to the world?”The adult develops a sense of purpose and meaning in life through work, family, and community involvement, or they feel stagnant and unproductive.
Integrity vs. DespairLate Adulthood (65+ years)“Did I live a meaningful life?”The older adult reflects on their life and experiences a sense of fulfillment and acceptance, or they feel despair and regret over missed opportunities.

Conclusion

The identity vs. role confusion stage of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development is a crucial period during adolescence, where individuals must discover their sense of self and place in the world. 

Failure to establish a sense of identity can result in insecurity and doubt. Yet, at the same time, success can lead to a robust and coherent sense of self, direction in life, and resilience. 

The central challenge during this stage is recognizing and embracing one’s true identity without confusing it with roles played in different contexts. 

Positive role models, encouragement to be independent, a safe and supportive environment, open communication, and freedom to express themselves are important factors that can help children to succeed at this stage. 

Ultimately, the successful development of identity can have long-lasting positive effects on an individual’s personal and professional life.

References

Brittian, A. S., & Lerner, R. M. (2013). Early influences and later outcomes associated with developmental trajectories of Eriksonian fidelity. Developmental Psychology49(4), 722–735. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028323

Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society. Vintage Digital.

Orenstein, G. A., & Lewis, L. (2021). Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556096/

Potterton, R., Austin, A., Robinson, L., Webb, H., Allen, K. L., & Schmidt, U. (2021). Identity development and social-emotional disorders during adolescence and emerging adulthood: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Youth and Adolescence51(1), 16–29. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-021-01536-7

Ragelienė, T. (2016). Links of adolescents identity development and relationship with peers: A systematic literature review. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry25(2), 97–105. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4879949/

Viktoriya Sus

Viktoriya Sus (MA)

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Viktoriya Sus is an academic writer specializing mainly in economics and business from Ukraine. She holds a Master’s degree in International Business from Lviv National University and has more than 6 years of experience writing for different clients. Viktoriya is passionate about researching the latest trends in economics and business. However, she also loves to explore different topics such as psychology, philosophy, and more.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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