Trying to Understand Teenagers Part I: Psychosocial Development

According to Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, during the ages of 12 to 18, teenagers are mostly focused on the questions “Who am I?” and “What do I believe and stand for?”

Identity versus confusion is thought to be the psychosocial crisis that teens are dealing with and many of us will probably agree that the teen years are full of trying out different roles and groups of friends to see where we fit in. This is natural and healthy as it helps us develop a sense of self, independence, a sense of belonging and a sense of individualism. If dealt with in an unhealthy way, this stage leads to feelings of confusion, and insecurity about themselves and where they fit into the world. At its worst it can lead to social and psychological impairments such as personality disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders and substance abuse.

Social relationships become the outmost important things to teenagers, which again is natural because humans are social beings and we need to learn how to get along with others and work together, but often times teens will put such great importance into their social relationships that everything else takes a back seat including familial relationships and academics. I see teens all the time whose biggest concern to them is their three month old relationship and not their failing grades and trying to get them to understand what should be important to them is more likely to give me gray hairs than it is to change thier point of view. Teens often sacrifice their relationship with parents to fulfill their needs for social relationships and usually don’t quite understand why we adults won’t just leave them alone to do what they want to do. A teenage girl I work with in individual and family counseling often cries to me that she just wants her mom to leave her alone and stop being worried about her. This young girl has been brought home at two in the morning by the police on a school night when her mom thought she was asleep, has been caught drinking and smoking marijuana and is failing school, yet she wants her mom to just let her “live my life”. This young girl is currently suspended from school after being caught having sexual contact with a boy in a restroom on campus.

It is natural for teens to try on different roles, friends, activities and behaviors to see what fits them and what doesn’t. This at times can be scary for those of us who watch the teens we know and love morph into and out of different roles and characters on their quest of finding their own identity and sense of direction.

With healthy and appropriate encouragement, reinforcement and support during this stage, teens will emerge with a strong sense of who they are, a feeling of independence, confidence and control over their lives. Those who come out of this stage unsure of who they are, what they want and what they believe are at a higher risk of developing the psychological impairments mentioned above as well as continue to feel insecure and confused about who they are into their adult years.