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 often undergoes an identity crisis in order to achieve a genuine sense of self, similar to an identity moratorium which is an exploration of a sense of self without the commitment. People in identity foreclosure have committed to an identity too soon before taking the time to explore their choices on their own. Often they have simply adopted the traits and qualities 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 they are politically conservative (their political identity), even though they have not actively explored other options. They have simply considered themself to be on the right because that's their parents' political identity.

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

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.

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, who also wrote extensively about identity crises. Because finding one's identity is a critical part of ​personality development, their research on identity formation has left a lasting legacy in the field of developmental psychology.

6 Sources
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  2. Verschueren M, Rassart J, Claes L, Moons P, Luyckx K. Identity Statuses throughout Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Large-Scale Study into Gender, Age, and Contextual Differences. Psychol Belg. 2017;57(1):32-42. doi:10.5334/pb.348

  3. Meeus W, van de Schoot R, Keijsers L. et al. Identity Statuses as Developmental Trajectories: A Five-Wave Longitudinal Study in Early-to-Middle and Middle-to-Late Adolescents. J Youth Adolesc. 2012;41:1008-1021. doi:10.1007/s10964-011-9730-y

  4. Kasinath HM. Adolescence: Search for an identity. J Educ Psychol. 2013;7(1):1-6. 

  5. Marcia JE, Waterman AS, Matteson DR, et al. Ego Identity, A Handbook for Psychosocial Research. Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media; 2012.

  6. Tsang SKM, Hui EKP, Law BCM. Positive Identity as a Positive Youth Development Construct: A Conceptual Review. Sci World J. 2012;2012:529691. doi:10.1100/2012/529691

Additional Reading

By Rebecca Fraser-Thill
Rebecca Fraser-Thill holds a Master's Degree in developmental psychology and writes about child development and tween parenting.