Identity Moratorium in Tweens and Teens

Teenage boy reading on the floor of a library

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An identity moratorium is one step in the process of finding a sense of self. It is a period of active searching for one's occupational, religious, ethnic, or another form of identity to determine who they really are. It is an identity crisis as part of the quest of teens and tweens to find themselves.

What a Crisis of Identity Looks Like

During an identity moratorium, individuals typically explore many different options. This includes examples such as visiting different types of churches. Perhaps they were raised Catholic but decide to visit a Protestant church. They may do so without feeling particularly committed to any one approach. In other words, a person in a moratorium is undergoing an active "identity crisis."

While this period may feel confusing and difficult to endure, many psychologists believe that an individual must go through a moratorium before he or she can form a true sense of identity (a state called identity achievement).

When Identity Moratoriums Typically Happen

Identity moratoriums often occur during the late tween and teen years, as individuals struggle to figure out "who they are." This is a normal part of personality development.

A person who was raised in a biracial, atheist, and apolitical home might first go on a quest to establish her racial identity. Say she has both Japanese and English heritage but grew up in a largely white community and didn't reflect on her racial background much. In adolescence, this person may begin to take an interest in her Japanese ancestry, reading books about her heritage, the treatment of Japanese Americans, and study the Japanese language.

An identity moratorium can happen at any time in one's life. Moratoriums usually occur for different types of identity (e.g., political, racial or cultural identity) at different times. We rarely undergo simultaneous crises about multiple parts of our identity.

By the late teen years, this person may begin to express an interest in religion as well, perhaps fueled by growing up in a home where no religion was practiced. She may decide to explore Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or various new age religions. She may decide to join a particular religion or live as an atheist, as her parents had.

In college, she may get involved in political activism. She may leave university a staunch leftist who's disturbed that her parents take no particular interest in sociopolitical issues.

While this individual explored different aspects of her identity at different times, her identity moratorium spanned puberty to young adulthood. At that point, she reached identity achievement.

The Origins of the Term Identity Moratorium

Canadian developmental psychologist James Marcia coined the phrase "identity moratorium." He made it clear that identity moratoriums were first and foremost a time of exploration for young people rather than a time for them to commit to any single cause or identity.

He first published work on identity statuses during the 1960s, but psychologists continue to build on his research today. Theorist Erik Erikson also wrote extensively about identity crises.

3 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. Kroger J. Identity Development in Adolescence and Adulthood. In: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Oxford University Press; 2017.

  3. Marcia JE. Development and validation of ego-identity statusJ Pers Soc Psychol. 1966;3(5):551-558. doi:10.1037/h0023281

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