teenagers: adults in training

712Erik Erikson’s theories on human development helped take the field out of it’s focus on childhood to recognise a number of important stages of psychosocial growth in adulthood. Erikson (1950) postulated that the ultimate outcome of the adult who has passed through all the stages of development successfully should result in a caring, generative individual similar to Maslow’s idea of the self-actualised person. However, development to such a level of self-awareness is contingent on the successful integration of the tasks of the earlier stages. The important tasks of the young adult, stages five and six according to Erikson, include establishing one’s identity and forming an intimate relationship with another person, while avoiding or minimising the period of crisis whereby one experiences role confusion and isolation. Adolescence and young adulthood is a challenging time is these respects and many young adults enter a period of ‘moratorium’, or ‘identity crisis’, essentially putting off the roles of adulthood to explore their options (Erikson 1968). This study seeks to identify the psychosocial developmental stage of a small sample of interviewees. It is expected that there will not be a clear cut difference between stages and that individuals may vary by age, gender or maturity and show elements of many stages.

Erikson expanded the psychodynamic theories of Freud to include the many social and developmental tasks of human growth, recognising that human development does not end when physical growth does. In Erikson’s The Eight Stages of Man (1950), he describes some important influences on development, correlating pairs of concepts that are vital to social and cognitive learning. The stages for late adolescence, early adulthood included identity (role confusion) and intimacy (isolation). It was Erikson’s contention that each stage results after a period of ‘crisis’ that builds on the last and contributes to an individuals’ cognitive and interpersonal social skills. Most importantly, it is through the experience of both sides of the dyad that the individual learns how to navigate the social world.

In late adolescence and early adulthood the development of identity and the learning of intimacy must necessarily involve an understanding of what isolation or lack of clear identity feels like. Psychosocial development can thus be measured by the degree to which the young adult has traversed the difficulties of the tasks of establishing an identity and learning intimacy and their negative correlates, and the extent to which they are self-awareness of this process. Erikson says, “The task to be performed here by the young person and by his society is formidable”.

Thus, the period between the late teenage years and adulthood is tumultuous. Erikson says the moratorium, “is a period that is characterised by selective permissiveness on the part of society and of provocative playfulness on the part of youth” (1968) and this is reflected in the relative tolerance for foolish or illegal misdemeanor on the part of youth and the identification with youth subcultures “to the point of apparent loss of identity” (1968, p 162). Some of the circumstances that indicate a social permission for moratorium include the entrance into tertiary education or apprenticeships, less formally in “adventures” or “horse stealing” as Erikson euphemistically refers to the element of testing the boundaries of permission that many youth indulge in.

While many young people will identify with a way of life that is based on fantasy (for instance based around appearances, fun, or attachment to a subculture), those identifications are usually temporary, and superseded by a more realistic assessment of self and the roles of adulthood. Once fantasy has been reconciled with reality, Erikson says the moratorium has been successful.

Once a clear sense of self has been established, the individual is thought to be capable of fusing with other selves. Intimacy is “the capacity to commit to concrete affiliations and partnerships and to develop the ethical strength to abide by such commitments even though they may call for significant sacrifices and compromises” (Erikson 1968, p263).
Affiliations, according to Erikson, develop more depth at this stage, and are not solely focused on ‘genitality’ as Freud theorised. Elements of mutuality, of shared enjoyment and trust expand to a loved other at this stage. The crisis is that of isolation from others and inability to form close personal relationships. Theorists generally agree that identity must be established before true intimacy can be achieved.

What seems like rule-breaking, contentious behaviour in our teenagers needs to be recognised for what it is: attempts to understand the world through trial and error, testing the boundaries of social permissiveness. It is an essential task of adolescence and young adulthood.

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