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Self-Identity in Children: Theory, Definition & Issues

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  • 0:02 What Is Self-Identity?
  • 1:46 Erik Erikson's Theories
  • 3:04 James Marcia's Theories
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew works as an adjunct instructor and has a doctorate in higher education.

This lesson is an introduction to how self-identity is formed in children and strategies teachers and parents can use to aid them in this formation. Two leading theories are discussed, and a short quiz is provided.

What Is Self-Identity?

Who am I? What makes me special? Why am I here? At some point or another, consciously or unconsciously, every child asks and answers these questions. These questions and many more are at the heart of a child's formation of self-identity, or the way in which a person views themselves and their role in the world. This is composed of a number of factors that are dependent on what you value.

We all have a sense of self-identity that has been formed by our experiences throughout our lives. This identity can change. Maybe as a child you were more of a loner, sitting in the back of the class keeping quiet. But then, when you hit puberty you became an athlete, made more friends, and suddenly, you were the life of the party! You may see yourself as being more feminine or masculine than others, regardless of your gender. Your religion may be a large part of your self-identity or maybe your skill in mathematics. Your self-identity is being continuously formed and shaped as you interact with the world, have successes and failures.

Children's self-identity is particularly tricky. As they grow and learn, children are constantly pushing the boundaries of what they feel they can do. They are encountering new scenarios, people, and environments. Physical and mental changes are occurring unceasingly for the first two decades of life, and with these changes come an ever shifting sense of self-identity. There have been countless philosophers and psychologists who have tackled the concept of self-identity, but the theories of two thinkers do an excellent job of summing up the stages, challenges, and techniques for building positive self-identity.

Erik Erikson's Theories

Working through much of the 20th century, psychologist Erik Erikson is most famous for developing his psychosocial theory of identity development. Erikson argued that development occurs in stages and is greatly influenced by one's interactions with their environment. In his theory, there are eight stages, though for the purposes of discussing children, we'll only cover the first five.

Erikson framed each stage around a 'crisis' that occurs, and development is affected by how the crisis is resolved. During any single stage, a child is grappling with their identity and may bounce back and forth between extremes. For example, during the second stage, a toddler may feel very autonomous about some things, such as their ability to feed themselves, but when encountering something new and scary, they may feel great doubt about their abilities.

In order to help children cope with these challenges, parents and teachers can support them in a number of ways:

  • Provide children with opportunities to complete tasks independently
  • Allow children to make their own decisions when appropriate
  • Allow children to design their own activities or incorporate their feedback
  • Notice and praise students' successes
  • Reassure students of the normalcy of identity searches using examples

James Marcia's Theories

James Marcia expanded on the theories presented by Erikson with his theory of identity achievement. According to Marcia, there is a continuum of identity development, and, much like Erikson theorized, as children encounter different 'crises' they are able to resolve their identity. Marcia, unlike Erikson, believed that the search for self-identity is an active process that requires conscious thought and intentional decision making. He posed two questions:

  • Has the person engaged in an active search for identity?
  • Has the person made commitments to values?

By answering these two questions either yes or no, Marcia felt that self-identity could be understood.

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