Erik Erikson's Psychosocial Stages

According to psychologist Erik Erikson, each individual passes through eight developmental stages during a lifetime. He called these "psychosocial stages."

It was the fifth stage, adolescence (13 to 18 years), that interested Erikson first and most, and the patterns he saw here were the basis for his thinking about all the other stages.

OBJECTIVE: The content of this blog is primarily for educators of adolescent students. The information and accompanying videos will provide evidence for your observation in order to better understand and recognize these traits and characteristics in your students.

IDENTITY VS ROLE CONFUSION  Erikson called his fifth stage "Identity vs Role Confusion." It is during this stage that we learn who we are and shape our identities in relation to others around us: peers, family and other role models. Erikson believed that the society -- not just the family and peers, but the society in which one grows up -- influences the structure of one's ego and one's identity. 

Adolescents are:

•beginning to analyze their own actions and consider others' perceptions
•beginning to decide who is trustworthy and why
•establishing autonomy - choosing their own path

Even the best-adjusted of adolescents experiences some role identity diffusion: most boys and probably most girls experiment with minor delinquency; rebellion flourishes and self-doubts flood the youngster. 

In the following clip, the adolescent describes feeling some fear when police officers took her name after she was caught with some friends who were throwing eggs in a supermarket parking lot. The manager corroborated her story that she didn't buy or throw the eggs. She did admit to giving her friend a "cart ride" through the lot. This delinquency, although minor, is unusual for this teen and her friends.

Another clip shows a different type of adolescent rebellion from this teen. She feels the need to deface images of actors and singers that she once liked, but are now deemed "baby-ish." This destruction is a visible indicator of her break with childhood interests.

According to Erikson, the adolescent seeks an inner knowledge or understanding of his or herself and attempts to formulate a set of values. Parents, peers and society are primary social influences on adolescents, but students are also looking to teachers for guidance. In the national Rural Mural research (Hillier, Warr & Haste, 1996) it was found that students are looking to teachers to provide them with more information on the sociocultural aspects of sex, in particular.

In the next clip, when asked about where she gets her values from, the teen answers, "you." (The interviewer is her mother). She goes on to mention her father as a possible source, but refuses to acknowledge her friends as a source. When questioned further about the validity of the answer, she became upset and told of 2 instances involving eggs and smoking where she stood her ground and refused to be swayed by her friends.


Adolescents must:

  • have ample opportunity to experiment with new roles and support to do this from adults
  • be aware of over-identification with one of the parents

Erikson believes that, in our culture, adolescence affords a "psychosocial moratorium," particularly for middle- and upper-class American children. They do not yet have to "play for keeps," but can experiment, trying various roles, and thus hopefully find the one most suitable for them.

The following clip shows an adolescent in the early stages of Identity Vs. Role Confusion try to decide what might be a suitable career choice based on what she enjoys doing right now.

Adolescents attempt to establish their own identities and see themselves as separate from their parents. Erikson believes that society should provide clear rites of passage - certain accomplishments and rituals that help to distinguish the adult from the child. In primitive and traditional societies, an adolescent boy may be asked to leave the village for a period of time to live on his own, hunt some symbolic animal, or seek an inspirational vision. Boys and girls may be required to go through certain tests of endurance, symbolic ceremonies, or educational events. In one way or another, the distinction between the powerless but carefree time of childhood and the powerful and responsible time of adulthood, is made clear.

Adolescent Physiology

Around the time of puberty, our bodies begin to produce melatonin later in the day. This change encourages the body to beging to fell sleepy at a later time in the day. Due to the growth that is taking place at this time, adolescents still require at least eight hours of sleep each night. The resetting of the sleep schedule combined with the early start times for middle and high school has led to a sleep deficit in our teens.

In this segment we learn about this adolescent's inability to fall asleep at a logical hour on a school night. She can't explain why she's just not tired, all she knows is that she can't fall asleep.

Emotional Changes
One of the fundamental aspects of adolescence is emotional change. Young people go through an experience commonly known as 'teenage angst', which explains many facets of the teenage experience. 'Normal' angst is seen as loneliness, strong and complex emotions dealing with identity and sexuality, feelings of immortality and, of course, bouts of sadness and anger that can disrupt a previously quiet family life.

In this clip, the adolescent tries to explain why she feels the need to sequester herself from her family in her bedroom. Her sense of self-reflection appears very shallow as she explains that she just doesn't feel like talking to anyone.


Psychologists, scientists and society at large unanimously agree that the end result of adolescence for teenagers reflects the creation of a sense of self, an identity. This identity comes from many years of emotional and physical turmoil culminating in a greater understanding of 'who I am'. Despite the fundamental nature of the end goal, in reality the process is far more important. Adolescence creates a narrative for each individual person and it disrupts old narratives formed during childhood. This time reflects transition, change and creation.

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