Exploration and discovery are the key processes in identity formation over the lifespan. Freedom for exploration and discovery may be supported or stifled by the experiences of one’s past. However, research shows that childhood experiences, specifically traumatic ones, influence identity exploration later in life. In addition, attachment with caregivers can foster or diminish exploration and discovery in adolescence.
If all goes well, the individual feels secure enough in their attachment to explore their values and examine his or her world through those values. Knowing that there is a safe place to land allows them to explore new territories. Adolescents who are identity-achieved, those who have taken the time to explore and make commitments, are more likely to experience a secure attachment than their peers in other identity status categories (Kroger, 2007). Because a feeling of safety and security was never established for children with disorganized attachment, they may be more hesitant to seek out novel experiences.
Despite traumatic experiences and disorganized attachment in childhood, it is hypothesized that a supportive environment in the teen years can facilitate exploration and discovery. Robert Kegan proposed that the optimal holding environment can support adolescents as they develop their identity. Adults in the adolescent’s life play a key role in the formation of the holding environment. An optimal holding environment, whether it be the family, school, clinician, or community, accepts the adolescent and his or her capacity. Moreover, the caregivers responsible for the holding environment should insist on recognizing the individual as a distinct and independent person who is responsible for one’s own life and self-authorship (Kegan, 1984).
According to Kegan, adolescents are unable to distinguish the self from others, and therefore define themselves by their relationships. During this developmental period, adolescents are quite vulnerable to the influences of those within their immediate social environments (Kegan, 1984). The self is embedded in its need for another’s approval and is unable to gain perspective or step out of this shared reality. This dynamic makes it very difficult for the adolescent to express anger and/or conflicting feelings with the peers with whom they are relating. This is because such expression threatens the disruption of the very relationship with is the self.
The caregivers continue to support the adolescent as they transition from defining themselves through others to becoming their own unique characters. In a secure holding environment, this is accomplished by caregivers remaining emotionally available, valuing closeness with the adolescent, and using empathy (Kegan, 1984). A disruption in support, such as the family moving or a therapist leaving, impacts the function of the holding environment (Kegan, 1984).
Kegan (1984) emphasizes how those in the environment must recognize and confirm the balance that adolescents are attempting to maintain as they develop their identities. Kegan (1984) used the imagery of a young adult walking over a bridge to represent the transitions through development. The adolescent can walk slowly and should feel supported on every point during their journey. Aligning with adolescents and allowing them to transition at their own pace is the foundation for a sense of security that will allow them to create their own meaning and values. At Family Guiding, we invite you to consider the adolescents in your life and your role in being supportive of them.
Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problems and process in human development,
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kroger, J. (2007). Identity development: Adolescence through adulthood (2nd ed.).
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Photo credit: Simon Maage