Adolescence and Identity development


With the exception of infancy, adolescence is the most radical of all developmental periods.  In the first few years between puberty and adulthood, one’s sense of oneself must adapt to physical changes of size, shape, strength and to full sexual and reproductive capacity.  Socially there is the need to develop the capacity for intimate relationships and to survive the initiation into the work place via demanding examinations: all this in a complex world. (Anderson and Dartington: Clinical Perspectives on Adolescents Disturbance. 1998)

At the same time as we are confronted by complex changes in physical development and social expectations we are faced with our own search for identity.  This establishment of identity will primarily be developed through a fusion of those whom we admire and are attracted to.  In seeking ‘ownership’ of identity it is natural to move away from our parental/guardian models in an attempt at differentiation, however the response from these role models, in relation to our choices, will add to or detract from our sense of self-acceptance and are ability to self-value.

Our early perception of ‘attachments’ (Bowlby 1989), the provision of a safe or insecure environment and our physical sense of well being or vulnerability, will be part of determining our world view and sense of self in this developmental stage.  The natural response to the lack of an environment conducive to meeting an individual’s potential to thrive is the adaption of coping strategies to create at least some degree of psychological and physical self-control.  Coping strategies, the use of drugs, self harm, alcohol etc., can be viewed as an individuals failing as opposed to their attempt at making sense of real or perceived difficulties and challenges, and viewed with greater significance than the young person’s struggle with the search for self-understanding.

The psycho-social viewpoint 

In any event, these kind of questions of identity are bound to be further complicated by the fact that, along with the invention of adolescence as a concept of the 20th century (Dartington, 1994), there was also a recognition that it was a crucial period for identity development.  Sandwiched between the childhood of ‘play’ and the adult world of work, hence looking backwards and forwards, it was inevitable that it would be accepted as a period of transition when a person might be trying on various temporary identities for size – not only to see how they fit, but also to hide behind them, and to observe how the adult will react to what is going on.

(Anderson and Dartington:  Clinical Perspectives on Adolescent Disturbance. 1998)

Bowlby, J. (1989) The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. Routledge

Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and loss Volume 1: Attachment.  Penguin

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