Erickson’s Stage: Identity vs. Role Confusion

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The Fifth Stage: Identity versus Role Confusion

The fifth stage of development, identity versus role confusion, affects adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 years old. This fifth stage depends on what the person does in life, as opposed to the previous four phases where development is largely dependent on what is done to a person. According to Rathus (2015), people go through a battle to uncover and also rediscover their identity at this point. Teen conduct typically tends to be not just impulsive but also unpredictable, specifically since they are looking for a sense of personal identity. Besides, at this developmental stage, the teenager struggles and negotiates with creating social ties and also "fitting in." Also, much time is spent on developing a sense of morality, which implies that there is a need to separate right from wrong.

The Influence of Outside Forces

It is pertinent to understand that outside forces are particularly essential during this stage, even though parents and family members continue to impact how adolescents view themselves. Schoolmates, friends, societal groups, popular culture, and societal trends shape the identity of the teenager. As further described by Boyd and Bee (2013), some adolescents attempt to delay official entering the adulthood whereby they tend to withdraw from adult responsibilities.

Success and Role Confusion

At this stage, unsuccessful individuals experience role confusion and upheaval. Adolescents start to form a strong affiliation and are further devoted to causes, ideals, or even friends. On the other side, teens who receive proper reinforcement and encouragement via personal exploration usually turn out to be in control and with a feeling of independence. The successful teens develop fidelity, i.e., a psychological virtue that is characterized by the adolescent's potential to positively relate to others and form genuine ties (Rathus, 2015). Such ability is pertinent in intimacy versus isolation, which is the upcoming stage.

Making Sense of "Mean Girls"

Mean Girls (Fey & Waters, 2004) contains a perfect movie scene that illustrates the Identity versus Role Confusion Stage. The movie Mean Girls depicts the life of teenagers and how they struggle to find their identity, particularly in a new school environment. At the cafeteria, there is evidence of Erickson's adolescent stage where teenagers are involved in the struggles with identity and role confusion. Cady, the main character in the movie, who is sixteen years old and is new to the school, is in search of where she belongs. There is a significant life change when Cady joins the new school and meets new classmates. Damian Leigh and Janis Ian try to educate her and influence her preferences on whom to associate with and whom to avoid.

The Different Cliques

The two friends enlighten Cady on the different cliques in school and further warn her to be cautious and avoid the infamous or the most popular ones. As referred to by Damian and Janis, the infamous ones are the "Plastics" with Regina George as their leader (queen bee) and others such as the airhead Karen Smith and the rich but insecure Gretchen Wieners. Despite the warning of Janis and Damian, we can see the Plastics taking an interest in Cady as they invite her to their table at lunch.

Erickson's Theory in Action

In the movie, it is evident that teenagers have different categorizations. Such categories include nerds, band geeks, jocks, or even "the plastics" (Fey & Waters, 2004). In the course of the movie, one can see that Cady struggles to identify herself with "the plastics" and her two real friends. The movie is based on exposing struggles a teenager goes through, particularly in a school setting, as well as their need to be recognized or be famous. As seen in the movie, Cady ditches her real friends and associates with "the plastics," mostly in search of fame.

How "Mean Girls" Fits Erickson's Stage

In the movie, the main character, Cady, who is sixteen years old, was homeschooled her whole life until the beginning of the movie where she joined the school. Considering her age and behavior, I would place Cady in the adolescence stage of the theory of development by Erickson. As described by Erickson, the fundamental conflict at this level is identity versus role confusion, and it is at this stage that teenagers need to form a personal identity and personal sense of self (Boyd & Bee, 2013). If individuals successfully identify themselves at this stage, they can stay true to themselves. On the other side, failure to identify oneself will make the adolescent experience role confusion and a weak sense of self.

Cady's Transformation and Revelation

At the onset of the film, Cady is portrayed as a young, shy, and naïve girl who does all she can to fit in. Even though she is nice to everyone around her, it seems hard for her to find friends who will accept her. However, she finally meets two other like-minded people. Cady is dared by Janis to associate with the plastics in order to get back at a girl she (Janis) wants to revenge on. Cady is seen to be so good at changing who she really is to an extent she starts to lose her personal identity and sense of her true being. Nonetheless, as the movie progresses, Cady realizes that she had forsaken her real friends for her new plastic ones, and this makes her realize that she has a weak sense of self. As a result, Cady gains the necessary courage and regains her true identity after which she rejoins with her original friends at school. At this juncture, the motives of Cady can be well understood. When she joined the new school after years of being homeschooled, Cady did not receive acceptance from schoolmates, and nobody seemed to respect or attend to her (Fey & Waters, 2004). Therefore, she was willing to do anything for recognition, respect, and attention, and that is the reason she openly accepted the company of the plastic friends.

Identity Issues and Transformation

Besides, Cady can be considered to have good intentions as she is initially committed to a manner considered as "good behavior". It is evident that she cares about how her peers view her since it matters a lot to her. Cady is involved in numerous personal transformations with the intention of being recognized and accepted by her schoolmates, and one such change occurs when she decides to join the group that receives the utmost attention at school. The group Cady joins is highly recognized at school, even though other schoolmates do not necessarily like it. At several scenes, Cady is seen lying to her old peers to avoid being blamed for her decision to continue associating with the plastics (Fey & Waters, 2004). In this light, the movie fits Erickson's identity versus role confusion developmental stage where teenagers are seen to develop a strong affiliation with friends, ideals, and causes. The basic indication of identity issues in this film is within the main character, and it emanates from her low self-esteem. Cady is sad since she got picked on and cannot find new friends during her first day at school, and the sadness is evident as she fails to speak to her parents.

In Conclusion

For teenagers to identify themselves in society, they need to complete the identity versus role confusion development stage. The type of development at this level is highly dependent on what an individual does as opposed to the previous stages where a child is greatly influenced by what is done to him or her. In a similar way that Erickson explained the struggle adolescents experience in efforts to discover and further find their true identity, Cady has gone through the same conflict. Besides, the stage entails negotiating and struggling with issues of social interaction, fitting in, and developing a sense of right and wrong (morality). Cady had completely lost her identity due to joining the plastics and gaining attention and popularity. The completion of the stage is seen when Cady decides to leave the plastics and become friends with her original peers, after which she gains her self-esteem and identity. As opposed to being much affiliated with friends, Cady learns to accept everybody for who they are and also be accepted for who she really is. Teenagers who are successful in this group end up developing a strong sense of identity regardless of the external influence such as from friends.


Boyd, D. R., & Bee, H. L. (2013). The Developing Child. London, United Kingdom: Pearson Education.

Fey, T. (Writer), & Waters, M. (Director). (2004). Mean Girls. In L. Michaels (Producer). Evanson, Illinois: Paramount Pictures.

Rathus, S. A. (2015). HDEV (Human Development) (4 ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: Cengage Learning.

April 06, 2023

Child Development

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