"Who Am I?" -- Identity Formation in Adolescence

by Rachel Sumner, PhD

Cornell University


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"Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken" - Oscar Wilde

What is Identity?

People can identify with lots of different groups, like their gender, race, nationality, or political party (just to name a few). A personal identity is a cohesive sense of self, and it includes ideas about all of these group identities, in addition to values and goals. If asked about their identity, someone might say something like “I'm an American woman, I want to make the world a better place, and I take care of my family.”

Identity in Adolescence

Many adolescents begin developing a sense of identity. They're trying to answer the question “Who am I?” Lots of the things that teens do, like trying new activities or wearing different kinds of clothes, are part of their search for an identity. Even though identity development often begins during the teen years, it can be a life-long process; people can change the way they think about themselves when they experience changes in life, like starting a new job or becoming a parent.

How do teens develop an identity?

Psychologists who study identity have described two processes that are involved in identity development [1]:

Identity Exploration

In order to try out different roles and options for themselves, teens might try things like:

Identity Commitment

There are lots of benefits associated with identity commitment. People who have committed to some aspect(s) of identity tend to experience more self-esteem and life satisfaction, and fewer symptoms of depression or anxiety. [2, 3]

Consequences of Engaging in Identity Exploration

There are benefits associated with having explored one's identity, but the process of exploration can be unsettling and uncomfortable. Adolescents should be encouraged to explore their identity, but they might require some additional social and emotional support while doing so.



Tips for Supporting Identity Formation


  1. Marcia, J. E. (1966). Development and validation of ego-identity status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 551-558.
  2. Schwartz, S. J., Beyers, W., Luyckx, K., Soenens, B., Zamboanga, B. L., Forthun, L.F., . . .Waterman, A. S. (2011). Examining the light and dark sides of  emerging adults' dentity: A study of identity status differences in positive and negative psychosocial functioning. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 839-859.
  3. Crocetti, E., Rubini, M., Luyckx, K., & Meeus, W. (2008). Identity formation in early and middle adolescents from various ethnic groups: From three dimensions to five statuses. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, 983-996.
  4. Schwartz, S. J., Zamboanga, B. L., Weisskirch, R. S., & Rodriguez, L. (2009). The relationships of personal and ethnic identity exploration to indices of adaptive and maladaptive psychosocial functioning. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 33, 131-144.