Identity Foreclosure in Adolescents

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Identity foreclosure is a psychological term that describes one of the key steps young people experience in the process of finding a sense of self. At this stage, adolescents may adopt different traits and qualities from friends and relatives, but have not yet settled on their own.

When Does Identity Foreclosure Occur?

Identity foreclosure occurs when people think they know who they are, but they have not even explored their options yet. Perhaps they grew up in a Christian home, attended Christian schools, and associated primarily with others in the faith. They may identify as a Christian without ever questioning their belief system. Then they leave home and meet more diverse groups of people or study world religions in school and decide to reevaluate their religious beliefs.

Identity foreclosure mimics identity achievement, which occurs when a person has explored their values, beliefs, career interests, sexual orientation, political leanings and more to reach an identity that feels uniquely their own. Identity foreclosure, however, isn't actually a true identity. It's like wearing a mask.

A person must undergo an identity crisis (also called identity moratorium) in order to achieve a genuine sense of self. People in identity foreclosure have committed to an identity too soon. Often they have simply adopted the identity of a parent, close relative or respected friend.

It is important for parents to encourage their children to adopt their own identities, even if the identity ultimately formed does not completely line up with theirs. Children aren't meant to be carbon copies of their parents but to be their own people.

Individuals Most Likely to Experience Identity Foreclosure

Of all the steps in finding an identity, tweens are most likely to be in identity foreclosure. For instance, a tween might proclaim that he is politically conservative (his political identity), even though he has not actively explored other options. He has simply considered himself to be on the right because that's his parents' political identity.

As he enters the late tween and teen years, however, he may begin to question his political beliefs and try out other approaches. Through this exploration (identity moratorium), he will eventually reach political identity achievement, which may or may not be conservative in nature.

Origins of the Term

Identity achievement is one of four identity statuses identified by Canadian developmental psychologist James Marcia. He challenged the idea that adolescents experienced identity confusion. Instead, he said they formed identities by undergoing two processes: identity crisis and commitment (identity achievement).

Marcia first published his works about identity statuses in the 1960s. His work can be found in the book "Ego Identity: A Handbook for Psychosocial Research." Since then, psychologists have continued to build upon his research.

Marcia arrived at his conclusions about identity formation by consulting the works of theorist Erik Erikson. Erikson also wrote extensively about identity crises. Because finding one's identity is a critical part of ​personality development, the work of both men has left a lasting legacy in the field of developmental psychology.

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  • Santrock, John, Ph.D. Children, Eleventh Edition. 2010. New York: McGraw-Hill.