Adolescence: Thirteen to Twenty

Identity Formation vs. Identity Confusion

“[T]he adolescent period of life is in reality
the one with the most power for courage and creativity.”
– Daniel J. Siegel –

As teens mature year by year, they leave the awkwardness of the tween stage and enter young adulthood. This is the last stage of what began in infancy: becoming an independent person. It’s no surprise, then, that the adolescent’s main task is to develop a sense of identity. That search for identity, which began in the previous stage, now intensifies as teens try to figure out who they are, what they believe, and where they plan to go in life. They explore different roles available to them and choose a path to pursue for the future.

For this reason, adolescents continue to be targets for the marketing pitches of almost anyone and everyone who has a product to sell. In an in-depth look at marketing and the youth culture, commentator David Kupelian said that “teenagers increasingly look to the media to provide them with a ready- made identity predicated on today’s version of what’s cool.”

But, he pointed out, advertising and media are interested in promoting a consumer identity, not necessarily a healthy identity.

In fact, part of the teen struggle centers on exactly what identity is and where to find it, because what’s being sold as identity is really about image. True identity is based on character in the sense of personal integrity. Beliefs. Values. So in the identity search, teens often try ideas on for size. This sometimes leads them to express themselves strongly on issues in order to hear themselves take a stand that differs from the views of the adult(s) in the discussion. In essence, the teen is trying to prove what the two-year-old discovered so long ago: I am a person in my own right. I am not you.

Social media is another place teens establish their identity and exhibit their image. Anastasia Goodstein of Ypulse, an online site that covers youth marketing and research, said of social media, “Teens are narcissistic and exhibitionist. For teens, especially, who are going through this stage where they’re constantly looking for that affirmation and validation and response for everything they are, it’s addictive.” Media and advertising fit right in, since, “Brands are about giving you value, giving you self-esteem,” says Juliet Schor in her book Born to Buy. Image, identity, and marketing are all connected in the teen world.

Teens push against boundaries, and adults usually push back. Ideally as teens move through this stage, adults allow them to make more and more of their own decisions. With loving support and age-appropriate boundaries, teens are usually able to begin figuring out who they are and what they stand for. On the other hand, a sense of identity confusion may develop if a teen is still treated like a child, or if the teen’s views and opinions are not heard or valued. This can also happen if someone maps out a teen’s future path for them.

But if the scale is tipped in favor of the positive, and teens are growing into their own sense of identity, they emerge from this stage with the strength of fidelity. As noted in the previous stage, fidelity means faithfulness – in this case, fidelity simply means being faithful to their beliefs and values and being true to who they are.

Novelist Orson Scott Card wrote that the life of the adolescent is “full of passion, intensity, magic, and infinite possibility; but lacking responsibility, rarely expecting to have to stay and bear the consequences of error. Everything is played at twice the speed and twice the volume in the adolescent – the romantic – life.” That’s a reminder of the “wishful thinking” type of fantasy that characterizes this stage, the “it won’t happen to me” mindset. As I mentioned previously, that type of wishful thinking lasts until around sixteen or seventeen for girls and into the early twenties for boys.

As a result of formal reasoning, teens can think about what others might be thinking of them. They may also contemplate how different value systems would work in their life as they search for what “fits” them. As a result, they may set aside their parents’ viewpoint, at least for a while, and try on another viewpoint instead.

Although teens are still in the stage of Ideal Reciprocity (the Golden Rule), they are able to look beyond the face value of an action to evaluate intentions, motives, social conditions, or life influences of the people responsible for the action. Their definition of what’s right may also shift. “Right” may become “what’s right for the group.” But there’s a flip side to reciprocity: Researcher John C. Gibbs points out that “reciprocity can serve many masters – including hate.”

Since one of the teen’s strongest desires is to be accepted, their morality tends to be conformist. When they have a moral decision to make, they often wonder, “What will they think of me if I do this (or if I don’t do this)?” They are the people who are significant in the teen’s life – maybe his peer group or a best friend. Being part of a peer group is appealing, because it confers teens with an automatic identity. But it also comes with a risk if they decide not to go along with group- think. They may have a hard time asserting their individual identity. Of course, parents, too, may continue to be significant influencers in a teen’s life. Other relatives, teachers, and coaches may play a significant role as well.

Some young adults of high school and college age grow into an even more mature stage of morality in which they measure moral decisions by social norms or even in universal terms. Facing death in a traumatic event like a school shooting or a life-threatening illness can also give teens – and even tweens – a more mature perspective on morality. Also, teens who are more contemplative and principled in their age group often move into the more mature moral stages in which their morality is part of how they perceive themselves. It has already become part of their identity.

Thirteen to Twenty

– questioning and tension
– personalizing faith/spirituality
– adult reasoning
– alert to the expectations of others
– conformist morality

Conflict: Identity vs. Identity Confusion
Strength: Fidelity

adapted from The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass © Karyn Henley.
All rights reserved.

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