How Do Teenagers Shape Identity?

As adults, we should give young people space to explore ideas, albeit good and bad. They must have space to form their identity.
How do teenagers shape identity?

Adolescence is the period from the beginning of puberty (13 or 14 years old) to 18 years of age. People usually think of it as a difficult stage, but many people go through adolescence with no problems. Still, it is important to keep in mind that teens are forming their identity during this time, and they are undergoing many changes.

The purpose of these identity changes is for teens to become independent. It is a preparation to enter adulthood with all its rights and responsibilities. So how do teenagers shape their identity? With his theory of youth identity, James Marcia wants to shed light on the process.

Identity theory for teenagers

James Marcia describes four identity statuses. These four statuses show the status of the individual in terms of their identity. They are born of two conditions:

  • Have experienced or not experienced an identity crisis.
  • To have made or not made professional, ideological or personal commitments.

What is an identity crisis? The world presents teenagers with a wide range of options for constructing their identity. They begin to explore their world when they become aware of these possibilities. They explore what they like and dislike, romantic relationships, gender, friendships, etc. This search can give rise to what we call an identity crisis.

What does it mean to make commitments regarding one’s identity? That is, after teens explore their possibilities, they will search for them thoroughly and adopt some as their own (ideas, commitments, values, etc.)

This acceptance implies a commitment to certain ideological, personal and professional concepts. These concepts will shape their identity and self-image. This in turn will greatly affect them in adulthood.

Below, we review the four statuses that come up when these two dimensions meet. They are identity diffusion, procrastination and identity achievement and exclusion.

Woman on field resting head on knees

Identity diffusion

This is when teens have made no commitments and are not exploring their options. At this stage, they are not worried about their identity. It will end up at some point because they will feel obligated to develop a personal identity, whether it is due to an identity crisis or social pressure.


During normal development, this phase tends to come after identity diffusion. Teenagers are in procrastination when they have had an identity crisis but have still not committed to anything.

Here they seek, explore and try different possibilities. Youth do this without choosing one particular with certainty. This can actually be a dangerous stage. If young people have damaged their self-esteem, they can resort to addictive drugs (alcohol, smoking, marijuana, etc.)

Identity achievement

Youth at this stage have overcome procrastination. They have also made certain ideological, business or personal commitments. After an identity crisis and exploring their possibilities, they choose the path they want to follow to continue to develop as a person.

All of this causes teens to form their identity and have an idea of ​​who they are. After this, they feel confident in themselves and tend to show positive changes on a behavioral and personal level.

Person walking on path in forest


So what happens if a young person never has an identity crisis? Sometimes they will not explore their options and go through postponement. When that happens, the way teens form their identity will be through the advice or direction of an adult.

People in this stage tend to be better aligned than those in procrastination or identity diffusion. Nevertheless, it is still a very unstable stage and far less secure than identity performance.

Concluding conclusions

Personal identity is not a single entity, nor is it an irreversible process. This is important to keep in mind when thinking about how teens form their identity. It’s time to make decisions, but more than anything else, it’s time to explore.

When we say that it is not a single entity, we mean that the process can follow different rhythms in different aspects of our identities. A person may have strong obligations that define their professional identity, but their political identity may be in postponement.

It is also important to understand that it is not irreversible. It is a dynamic process of giving and taking. When a young person reaches identity achievement or exclusion, they may have a new identity crisis.

It will form a new identity that is different from the previous one. For example, a person who started studying medicine may re-evaluate their situation and switch to studying law.

Young teenager in forest wearing hoodie

After looking at James Marcia’s studies and theory, we can draw some general conclusions. One is how important it is for young people to explore the world around them. The second is that the way they face exploration is transcendent.

As adults, we should give young people space to explore ideas, albeit good and bad. That way, they will explore because they are curious, and not because they are rebellious. We need to realize that this is the only way teenagers form their identity.

If adults force young people to make arbitrary commitments, they will end up in the exclusion phase with an unstable identity that can prevent them from achieving identity achievement.

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