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What Is Erikson's Theory Regarding Peer Influence in Adolescent Development?

by Christine Jax

Psychologist Erik Erikson built upon the work of Sigmund Freud but focused more on social rather than sexual aspects of development. He organized psychosocial development into a lifespan model of eight stages from birth to death. Each stage is characterized by an issue in conflict between an individual's makeup and the societal context. Adolescents are in Erikson’s fifth stage, which is characterized by a conflict between identity and identity confusion. This is when humans most wrestle with the questions of “who am I?” and “where am I headed?”

Autonomy

Children seek to become independent from their parents and immerse themselves in their own social environment during adolescence. In order to increase their autonomy and explore their own individual identities, adolescents also need to question their parents' rules and behaviors, says University of Michigan professor Jacquelynne S. Eccles. As a result of questioning their parents and spending less time with them, adolescents are more susceptible to peer pressure, particularly in the younger years.

Fitting In

They may be pulling away from their parents, but adolescents want to fit in and understand their place in society. Peer groups fulfill the adolescent’s need for validity and acceptance and provide space and opportunity for exploration and experimentation. Adolescents actively seek membership in a peer group to help them explore different educational, occupational, political and social roles. Parents might take comfort in knowing that adolescents generally select peers who resemble them and their upbringing, according to Eccles.

Failure

If a child is struggling at this stage and identity confusion is stronger than identity formation, she might explore lifestyles that are unhealthy or dangerous. A child who fails to develop properly during this stage rejects social contracts with others and fights conforming to social values, becoming particularly susceptible to negative peer pressure. Children who are pressured by parents to conform to a particular role they don’t identify with may also rebel.

Success

Successful progression through the fifth stage isn't free from adolescent rebellion. Challenging parents and teachers is necessary for optimal emotional and cognitive health, as is exploring a range of answers to "who am I?" However, healthy rebellion includes the acceptance of rules, responsibilities and consequences. According to Erikson, successful completion of his fifth stage leads to the virtue of fidelity and the ability to be loyal to people and ideologies, and it is necessary for a positive transition to adulthood.

About the Author

Christine Jax has been a writer since 1991 in the areas of education, parenting and family relationships. Professor Jax has a Ph.D. in education policy and administration, a Master of Arts in public administration and a Bachelor of Arts in child psychology. She has worked in PK-12 and higher education for more than 20 years.

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