DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY
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DEVELOPING AN IDENTITY
THE MAJOR PSYCHOLOGICAL TASK OF ADOLESCENCE

The importance of adolescence
 The focus on "birth to three" has contributed to relatively less attention on other valuable areas of study. Clarke and Clarke (1976, 1989) have argued convincingly against the "myth" of early childhood as a critical period. They provide numerous case studies of children who developed well after removal from a deprived early environment. Without intervention, environments tend to be stable. It is not that poor early environment dooms a child's chance of normal development; rather, a child who is living in an extremely disadvantaged environment in early childhood tends to be living in the same setting throughout childhood and adolescence.

 From both theoretical and practical perspectives, adolescence is a critical time in development. From a practical standpoint, negative early environment has already happened for millions of adolescents. Adolescents, not three-year-olds, overwhelm our courts, emergency rooms, and police forces. Adolescence is the last period when the family and social systems have the individual "in our power". To enroll the unwilling adult in any intervention program requires court orders, and a variety of other legal and extralegal efforts. During the entire procedure, the individual is free to "vote with his feet", and simply disappear to a new locale.

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What some of the world's foremost psychologists have said about identity
Erik Erikson was the first to draw major attention to the adolescent period. While earlier theorists, particularly Freud, had focused on early development, a period of which most of us have few conscious memories, Erikson contributed the first lifespan theory of development. From this theoretical standpoint, adolescence appears the ideal time for intervention. According to Erikson (1968), this is the period during which identity achievement is the foremost accomplishment. Erikson (p.19) defines identity as "a sense of invigorating sameness and continuity", which "is in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his communal culture" (p.22). James (1920, p. 199) defines identity as " discernible in the mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: 'This is the real me!'"

Freud (1959, p. 273) described identity as "many obscure emotional forces, which were the more powerful the less they could be expressed in words, as well as a clear consciousness of inner identity, the safe privacy of a common mental construction." This "clear consciousness" enabled Freud to "do without the agreement of the 'compact majority'" and join the opposition to the Nazi party.

In other words, Freud knew who he really was, what he really believed. Even though most people were in close agreement that joining the opposition to the Nazis was a dangerous, foolhardy act, to Freud, it was clearly the right thing to do, and he did it.

I do agree with Frued that it is difficult to simply describe what is meant by identity. It is one of those things that adults have more often than adolescents - that is, a clear sense of one's goals, a set of beliefs about what is true, and values about what is important. During adolescence, we begin to separate more from our parents and develop more a sense of self which is our own.

Erikson said another, I think crucially important, thing about identity. I apologize in advance for confusing you, but he discussed the development of a negative identity differently from your textbook. A negative identity, in Erikson's view, was defining oneself by what one was NOT. (Similar to the idea of a negative in mathematics.) Most commonly, an adolescent would become exactly the opposite of whatever his or her parents wished. (This is what your textbook refers to as a deviant identity.) It is not that uncommon, for example, to find children of professors who refuse to go to college at all. The most common example, I suppose, is the stereotype of the minister's son who becomes a total drinking, womanizing, irresponsible atheist. Erikson said this was most common when the adolescent was unable to meet the standards demanded by parents for their approval. In establishing a  negative identity, he said, the adolescent decides:

It is better to be somebody  bad than no one at all.

That statement is so true, it gives me goosebumps. It describes a great many of the adolescents I have known who would be described variously as juvenile delinquents, oppositional defiant disorder, emotionally disturbed, or, simply bad. Read that line over again another eight times.

(In fairness to the textbook author, more recent articles I have read have used the term negative identity in the same sense that he does, to mean a person who has negative feelings about himself/herself.)

IDENTITY DEVELOPMENT: SELECTING A CAREER -- and racism
Below is a quote from an article in the American Counseling Association electronic newsletter. To me, it is implying that Hispanic and African-American youth are less likely to be college material.

High school counseling programs that spend disproportionate amounts of time on college admissions to the exclusion of preparation services for work-bound youths are not serving the preparation needs of a large group of students (VanZandt & Hayslip, 1994). In addition, accommodations become necessary for the rapidly changing demographics in this nation. By the year 2030, it is projected that Hispanic youths will have increased by almost 80% to 10 million, African American youths will increase by 14%, and European American youths will decline by 10% (Brindis,
Unfortunately, this article is no longer available on-line, as it did have some good suggestions. Did I read it the wrong way, do you think? Maybe I am reflecting my own personal bias that high school counselors tend to view Hispanic youth that way. I know that has been my daughter's experience. Guidance counselors who have clearly not even looked in her file have made such comments as "Well, of course, everyone wants to go to UCLA, but you have to be reasonable." She has a 4.2 GPA and scored in the top 5% on her PSAT. I think UCLA is more than a reasonable option for her. (Can you tell this annoys me?) Maria ended up attending New York University where she graduated in 3 1/2 years.

Where do adolescents get their ideas about careers, goals, etc.? Some of it comes from their parents, some from their peers (who generally don't have much knowledge of career requirements or options) and some from school counselors. Unfortunately, counselors often have little time to spend with the average student, and are often making recommendations based on little knowledge of the individual. I remember speaking with one woman on the reservation who said she had never experienced racism. At the same time, she mentioned that her high school counselor had strongly encouraged her to go on to secretarial school, to further her education. This was a person who clearly had MUCH more potential to succeed in college than the average person. I know, because she was a student in a class I taught twenty years after she had finished secretarial school. She was an outstanding writer and intellectually gifted. I told her that, in my opinion, not encouraging her to go to college instead of secretarial school was racism. It may not be as overt as standing on the street corner and yelling racial slurs, but I am not sure that it is any better for all of that.

Okay, now I will step down from my soapbox -- until the next time.

Identity and the importance of adolescence: Some things to think about
 If adolescence is the period during which is formed one's "real self", a system of beliefs and values which cannot be compromised without feeling one is being untrue to oneself, and which can even be motivation for acting contrary to personal safety, as Freud's case, then this is the period when intervention can be most productive.
 
  •  Empirically, both quantitative and qualitative research have documented adolescence as 'a turning point' in development (Csikszentmihalyi,1990; Rogers, 1993).
    • Early adolescence is a particularly critical time for ethnic minority youth. Although at age 5-9 the prevalence of emotional disturbance among Native American children is similar to the general population, between ages 10-14 the rate of emotional disorders, delinquency and drug abuse begins to escalate (Yates, 1987).
    • By age 12, youth on the Devils Lake Sioux Reservation have a significantly younger age of first experimentation with alcohol and higher frequency of regular drinking than the state average (Rousey, 1995).
  • During early adolescence, girls begin to show a lower academic achievement and self-esteem than boys, and a higher proportion of depression and eating disorders (Orenstein, 1994).
    The rate of depression (Compass et al., 1995), and problem behavior (substance abuse, delinquency, unprotected intercourse) rises dramatically during early adolescence (Andrews, 1996). Compas et al. (1995, p.281) suggest "...that there is something special about adolescence in understanding developmental processes in depression." It might be added that adolescence is a critical period for a host of other psychological and behavioral variables as well. "
  • The overwhelming majority of 'high-risk' children who cope successfully with adversity in adolescence become competent adults who report satisfaction with their situation in life (Werner, 1986, 1989)


What makes a difference in adolescence?
1. FAMILY
In her study of delinquent youth, Werner (1989, p. 79-80) reported that "... the presence of an intact family unit in childhood, and especially in adolescence, was a major protective factor in the lives of delinquent youth who turned out to be only temporary or minor offenders." Youth who had experienced a divorce or other family disruption during adolescence were at much greater risk of progressing to an adult criminal career than those who had a more stable family structure during adolescence.
    These findings are in direct contrast to some practitioners in the field, e.g., a common saying overheard among social workers regarding intervention, "If not by eight, itís too late". (Sometimes, people who pretend they know what they are talking about will cite Benjamin Bloom's research to support this nonsense. That is not what Bloom found, and they are wrong.)

2. etc.... that will come up in the next few web pages as we continue with this section of the course - now you have to read them,  ha, ha!
(Why do I get the feeling that you are not amused?)

REFERENCES ON ADOLESCENCE WHICH I WOULD PARTICULARLY RECOMMEND
Clarke, A.D.B. & Clarke, A.M. (1989). The later cognitive effects of early intervention. Intelligence,13, 289-297.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper.
Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd ed.) New York: Norton
Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity, youth and crisis. New York: W.W.Norton.
Orenstein, P. (1994) Schoolgirls.
Radke-Yarrow, M.  & Sherman, T. (1990). Hard growing: Children who survive.  In J. Rolf et al. (Eds.)Risk and protective factors in the development of psychopathology Cambridge: University of Cambridge. 97-119.
Rogers, A. G. (1993). Voice, play and practice of ordinary courage in girls' and women's lives. Harvard Educational Review, 63, 265-295.
 Werner, E. E. (1989). High risk children in young adulthood: A longitudinal study from birth to 32 years. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 59, 72-81.
 (Werner has written a lot on this issue - you may find some of her books, such as Vulnerable but invincible or Children of Kauai Grow Up more readable than the article listed above.)

Go to the next page in the course, more on adolescence

Return to the developmental psychology home page.

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