Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis Definition

Erik H. Erikson coined the term identity crisis to describe the uncertainty, and even anxiety, that adolescents may feel as they recognize that they are no longer children and become puzzled and confused about their present and future roles in life.

Context and Importance of Identity Crisis

Identity CrisisYou may recall a time during the teenage years when you were confused about who you were, what you should be, and what the future might hold in store for you. Forming an adult identity involves grappling with many important questions: What career path best suits me? What religious, moral, or political values can I call my own? Who am I as male or female and as a sexual being? How important are marriage and raising children to me? Just where do I fit in to society? These identity issues, often raised at a time when teenagers are also trying to cope with their rapidly changing body images and more demanding social and academic lives, can add significantly to one’s con-fusion about who he or she is (or can become).

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The Process of Forging Identities

Researchers have developed elaborate interviews, questioning adolescents and young adults to determine if interviewees have experienced a crisis (grappled with identity issues) and whether or not interviewees have made commitments (i.e., resolved any issues raised) with respect to forging occupational, interpersonal, political, and religious identities.

Based on the answers provided, the interviewee is classified into one of four identity statuses for each identity domain:

  1. Identity diffusion: Persons classified as “diffuse” have neither thought much about nor resolved identity questions and have failed to chart future life directions. Example: “I haven’t really thought much about religion and I’m not sure what to believe.”
  2. Foreclosure: Persons classified as “foreclosed” have committed to an identity, or identities, without experiencing the crisis of deciding if these commitments really suit them well. Example: “My parents are Lutherans and so I’m a Lutheran; it’s just how it is.”
  3. Moratorium: Persons in this status are currently experiencing an identity crisis and are asking questions about various life choices and seeking answers. Example: “I’m exploring my religious teachings, hoping to determine if I can live with them. I like some of the answers provided by my Baptist upbringing, but I’m skeptical about so much. I’ve been looking into Unitarianism to see if it might help me overcome my doubts.”
  4. Identity achievement: Identity-achieved individuals have raised and resolved identity issues by making well-thought-out personal commitments to various life domains. Example: “After much soul-searching about my religion, and other religions too, I finally know what I believe and what I don’t and how my beliefs will affect the way I’ll live my life.”

Although Erikson assumed that the painful aspects of identity crises occur early in adolescence and are often resolved between the ages of 15 and 18, his age norms are overly optimistic. Research with 12- to 24-year-olds consistently reveals that the vast majority of 12- to 18-year-olds are identity diffuse or foreclosed, and not until age 21 and older had the majority of participants reached the moratorium status (crisis) or achieved stable identities in any life domain. There is one intriguing sex difference. Although today’s college women are just as concerned as men are about achieving an occupational identity, they attach greater importance than men do to aspects of identity that focus on sexuality, personal relationships, and how to balance career and family goals.

The process of identity achievement is often quite uneven. One study assessed the identity statuses of participants in four domains: occupational choice, gender-role attitudes, religious beliefs, and political ideologies. Only 5% of participants were in the same identity status in all areas, with 95% being in two or even three statuses across the four domains. So adolescents and young adults may have achieved a strong sense of identity in one area but still be searching in others.

How Painful Are Identity Crises?

It may be unfortunate that Erikson used the term crisis to describe a young person’s search for identity, because adolescents in the moratorium status do not appear all that stressed out. In fact, these active identity seekers typically feel much better about themselves and their futures than do same-age peers still stuck in the diffusion or foreclosure statuses. So the active search for identity is often more uplifting than deflating.

What is most painful or crisis-like about identity seeking is a long-term failure to establish one. Older adolescents and young adults still stuck in the diffusion status are often apathetic and sometimes even suicidal; alternatively, they may adopt a negative identity, drifting into antisocial or delinquent behaviors. These are the individuals who may experience a true identity crisis after all.

Parenting and Identity Crisis

Parenting clearly affects how adolescents experience and manage the identity crisis. Individuals who feel alienated from parents often remain diffuse and experience serious adjustment problems, whereas those who feel close to controlling parents often simply foreclose on identities that parents suggest or dictate to them and that may prove unsatisfying. Adolescents who forge healthy identities that suit them well typically have warm and accepting parents who encourage identity explorations and who permit their teens to take their own stands on issues and to become individuals in their own right.


  1. Archer, S. (1994). Interventions for adolescent identity development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
  3. Kroger, J. (2007). Identity development: Adolescence through adulthood (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Marcia, J. E., Waterman, A. S., Matteson, D., Archer, S., & Orlofsky, J. L. (1993). Ego identity: A handbook for psychosocial research. New York: Springer.