Understanding Identity Diffusion in Children and Tweens

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Your growing child is establishing an identity of his or her own, and that is an exciting phase of development. Identity diffusion is an important part of this development. 

Identity diffusion is one step in the process of finding a sense of self. It refers to a period when an individual does not have an established identity nor is actively searching for one. In other words, it's a time when a person's identity remains unresolved, yet there is no identity crisis (a process called an identity moratorium).

Origins of Identity Diffusion

Identity diffusion is one of four identity statuses identified by Canadian developmental psychologist James Marcia. He developed his theories about identity by consulting the work of theorist Erik Erikson, who also wrote extensively about identity crises. Marcia published his work on identity statuses in the 1960s, but since then psychologists have continued to refine his ideas.

At What Age Does Identity Diffusion Occur?

Children and young tweens are often in a state of identity diffusion for most types of identity, such as religious, occupational, or cultural identity. For instance, if you ask a young tween whether he is a Republican, Democrat, or Independent, he would most likely say he doesn't know and has never even thought about it.

This is a classic answer from someone in identity diffusion: There is no commitment to a way of thinking and no concern about that lack of commitment. Identity diffusion is a normal phase in personality development in growing children.

If you're concerned that your tween doesn't appear to have a strong sense of self, rest assured that as the teen years approach, your child will begin to carve out his niche in the world, exploring his interests in music, fashion, literature, politics, religion and more.

Other Identity Statuses Youth Experience

Some youth may also experience identity foreclosure, a process in which they assume an identity too early. They may say they're a Democrat or a Catholic, simply because their parents are, or because a good friend or favorite teacher is. As they get to know themselves better by leaving home, attending college or by meeting new people, they may decide that they're a Republican, after all, and consider themselves to be an evangelical Christian rather than a Catholic.

After experiencing identity diffusion, identity foreclosure, and identity moratorium, adolescents typically go on to reach identity achievement, the fulfillment of their unique identity and true self. It's important to note, however, that children and adolescents don't necessarily experience these identity statuses in a particular order.

After they've experienced the aforementioned three stages of identity, most individuals come up with a set of values and beliefs, a professional vocation, and other markers of identity that best reflect themselves. This identity achievement typically occurs in adulthood.

Identity Diffusion Outside of Childhood

Sometimes people who suffer from borderline personality disorder are said to have identity diffusion. These individuals often feel as if they don't have a true self. Their identities fluctuate depending on the people in their surroundings and the situations in which they find themselves. Such individuals often report having difficulty knowing where they begin and others end.

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Article Sources
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  1. Meeus W, van de Schoot R, Keijsers L, Branje S. Identity statuses as developmental trajectories: a five-wave longitudinal study in early-to-middle and middle-to-late adolescentsJ Youth Adolesc. 2012;41(8):1008–1021. doi:10.1007/s10964-011-9730-y

  2. Goth K, Foelsch P, Schlüter-Müller S, et al. Assessment of identity development and identity diffusion in adolescence - Theoretical basis and psychometric properties of the self-report questionnaire AIDAChild Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health. 2012;6(1):27. Published 2012 Jul 19. doi:10.1186/1753-2000-6-27

Additional Reading
  • Santrock, John, PhD. Children, Eleventh Edition. 2010. New York: McGraw-Hill.