An identity crisis is a time in life when an individual begins to seriously look for answers about the nature of his or her being and the search for an identity. 20th century developmental psychologist Erik Erikson developed this term, which is used frequently. He used it mostly to apply to the period of transition in the teenage years when kids begin to define what they will do as adults, and what their values are. It is now thought that an identity crisis may occur at any time of life, especially in periods of great transition.
Most teens go through periods of defiance against parental figures and other authorities. Though kids may make extremely poor choices when they choose to defy their parents, they are often participating in a deep exploration of self that will help them determine what they will do and who they will be as they enter adulthood. For parents, watching a child enter the identity crisis stage is often fearful and difficult, since deliberate disobedience to certain standards may be inherently risky. Kids can, unfortunately, wreck their futures if they push too far away from parental or societal law; they could end up addicted to drugs or parenting children of their own far before they’re ready.
Nevertheless, most children must make this fearful passage to find a unique identity. When they are in the midst of it, this may be called the moratorium stage. In this part choices are being evaluated and explored, and there might be high incidence of exploration or various ideas, interests, careers, and sexuality, among other things. Once through the crisis, people have what is called identity achievement. They have set their feet on a path and determined who they are and what they want to be.
This isn’t only about determining a potential career. Such a crisis can be about exploring sexual identity and deciding what ethics and values are most important. Some people end up on a path that determines their identity without exploration or introspection, and this may be called a foreclosure state. Some social scientists feel that a foreclosure will precipitate an identity crisis at a later point, since little exploration about choices was made. Occasionally, people who live in very restrictive environments have their choices made for them, and an identity is established without much choice or examination of other options.
There are certain cultures that deeply encourage and facilitate an identity crisis. In Amish cultures, some communities encourage older teens to live in the outside world before determining whether they will remain a permanent part of the Amish community and be baptized. Similarly, some Roman Catholic communities now have changed confirmation to a later time, or encourage people to take time to consider whether they truly wish to be confirmed in the Church. Allowing an identity to emerge before making such important decisions seems psychologically sound.
As mentioned, this crisis is not restricted to adolescence and the emergence into adulthood. It can occur at any time, and many people label the midlife crisis as a crisis of identity. Some people find their values, choices, or paths inappropriate after major life changes like a divorce. Furthermore, nations and communities can suffer these crises too as they grow or respond to major changes. How a culture identifies itself and what it wants and holds dear can be part of a national identity crisis that may take a while to resolve and may be somewhat constantly in flux.