Erikson’s Stage 5: Identity vs. Role Confusion

According to Erik Erikson, the psychosocial developmental goal of adolescence is to develop an identity (Orenstein & Lewis, 2020). Personal worth and values create the foundation for a healthy identity, which leads to healthy adult relationships. Typically, adolescents experience the developmental stage of identity vs. role confusion between 12 and 18 (Syed & McLean, 2017). Although role confusion is typical in adolescence, teenagers who require mental health treatment experience more intensive role confusion because of lower ego strength and self-esteem.  

Developmental trauma and traumatic experiences in childhood create developmental hiccups, maladaptive or lack of coping skills in previous developmental stages (Arvidson et al., 2011). Successful mental health treatment during adolescence focuses on the underlying needs of role confusion, eliminating or replacing maladaptive behaviors from earlier stages, and developing a prosocial value system, and implementation of effective skills (Blaustein & Kinniburgh, 2018).  

These are often features of unaccomplished developmental needs in adolescence:

  •  Difficulties with commitment: unsure of their values and boundaries, vulnerable to peer pressure, problems starting or stopping relationships, jobs, roles, overdependence or isolation from family/friends, unsure of what direction in life to take
  • Fragile sense of self: looks outside for definition of self (i.e., self is defined by others, success, failure, attention), constant need for attention or over recognition, dependent on group for identity
  • Lack of confidence, negative self-image, unwillingness to express thoughts, ideas or accept others that differ with them, feelings of worthlessness, or being unlovable
  • Sex and relationship issues: my be preoccupied with sex, appearance, body, materialism, confusion around sex, love, and nurturing, relational or sexual avoidance (D’Andrea, Ford, Stolbach, Spinazzola, & van der Kolk, 2012)    

Role confusion can occur within families when boundaries are not transparent or are overly rigid. Teens need a structure that provides safety and support and reflects a healthy value system. This structure offers limits and boundaries, helps defines what behaviors are appropriate or effective, and balancing the needs of self and others, and accepting accountability and responsibility. 

Teens also need the freedom to consider different values, express likes and dislikes, problem solve for skill development, experience different roles, begin and end relationships, adopt healthy sexuality, and develop and practice personal boundaries. 

Unfortunately, social media can exacerbate role confusion by confusing fantasy and reality and the development of online identities vs. those in the real world (Weaver & Swank, 2019).

As defined by Erikson, the development of fidelity as “establishing an ideological commitment to one’s beliefs and values” (Erikson, 1968) is a pathway to healthy identity development. In mental health treatment, fidelity should be a focus. Developing healthy relationships within a young person’s family supports developmental milestone mastery and values. The base of healthy familial relationships provides a framework and guidance in managing social relationships with peers. Fidelity is paramount to master in adolescence before navigating developmental tasks of young adulthood, intimacy vs. isolation.   

A Brief Overview of Erikson’s 8 Stages of Development

Childhood and Society by Erik Erikson