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How the Development of Identity Affects the Individual in Childhood and Adolescence

Adolescence StagePsychological studies done on the formation of concepts usually research how individuals come to grips with issues viewed problematically at some important point of their lives. Developmental studies similarly analyze the conceptual understanding of individuals at different points in their lives because under developmental theories the cognitive capabilities of conceptual understanding change substantially through time. In developmental studies, the researcher looks at the intellectual procedures, considerations, and strategies utilized by the subject under observation to come to a comprehension of the problematic issue. This methodology has dominated developmental studies since the very beginning. Although widely used there are other techniques utilized in developmental studies. Studies in the development of identity focus on an evaluative orientation to the factors important to its progression.

The development of identity is viewed as effective orientation and assessed by negative or positive values. Generally, it is felt among researchers and educators alike that the negative and positive self feelings of children are rooted in their social relationships, mental health, performance at school, and their overall successful adaptation to the environment around them.

The development of personal identity is a critical part of an individual's comprehension of his or her social environment. Unlike concepts dealing with relationships such as authority or friendship, and those concerning regulations (conventions, fairness, social rules, etc.) which all serve to allow the individual to associate within his or her particular societal environment, identity allows one to understand how one is different from others. Consequently, this concept itself provides the cognitive basis for a person to view himself as an individual with a unique position, role and status within his or her network.

One of the primary theories concerning the development of identity divides itself into two primary components, "Me" and "I." The "Me" component is basically the total of everything a person can call his own. In this theory, the primary elements of "Me" consist of the actual qualities that define self identity. These would consist of all the material attributes (possessions and physical characteristics), the social attributes (personality and relationships) and the spiritual attributes (consciousness) that defines one's identity as a unique individual. To these attributes of this classical theory of the development of identity, one can add another which would consist of a quality attributes of self (capabilities). Under this theory, each individual structures the attributes of "me" in a hierarchical manner, such that different values are assigned to the various attributes concerned.

The "I" component of this theoretical structure is perceived as the individual self as knower, that is to say a self that is in a constant state of interpreting and organizing experiences encountered in a purely subjective fashion. Each person becomes aware of "I" through three basic types of experiences: volition, distinctiveness, and continuity. The development of a stable individual identity arises from the awareness of the continuity of the individual as a knower. In other words, that "I" will always remain constant. This sense of individuality arises from the knowledge of the distinctness the individual has from the others in his community and derives from the highly subjective aspect of the self as knower. The concept and awareness of personal volition is an essential aspect of the individual self as knower concept. The very idea of identity signifies that a person is an active processor of experience. Via one's own interpretations and thoughts of the surrounding environment, an individual exhibits command and agency over the most fundamental aspect of identity. What is implied by the experience of all these features is the additional awareness of the duty of the individual to reflect and recognize his or her own nature of identity.

Because of the totally subjective nature of the "I" aspect of the duality of self identity expounded upon above, it is difficult to characterize and observe this phenomenon which can easily change unpredictably from any given moment to another. Unlike the nature of "Me", which is essentially a set of definitions that an individual and others construct to establish one's self identity, the "I" has the potential of including the sum total of any particular individuals interactions with his environment. This "I" is obtained from all of an individual's experiences, as it constitutes the totally unique interpretations of the things, people, and events around the person. The development of "I" will determine the meaning of events in one's life. Consequently, at least initially, it was felt that the study of "I" was best left to philosophers rather than psychologists, who should instead concentrate on the analysis of "Me." Some researchers and theorists, felt nonetheless that "I" could be approached through "Me" via a study of a person's knowledge of both their subjective and objective selves (Mead 1934) . "Me" by its structure is the comprehension of self as an object, consequently, the analysis of "Me" is by its foundation the study of the understanding of self. Extending such research to "I" signifies analyzing a person's comprehension of self as subject. The understanding of self, thus, in such a comprehensive manner signifies the reflection of knowledge of the individual as he or she is known, as well as, as he or she knows. In this manner, a person's conception of "I" would include self reflection, volition, uniqueness, and continuity, in addition to the remainder of the persons self defining aspects which would constitute a composition of "Me." The self recognition paradigm described has been successfully used by researchers in the study of the development of identity.

One of the oldest and most common methodologies is to observe individual's reactions in their visual self recognition. The scientific use of this type of methodology with infants can actually be traced to Charles Darwin, who noted once in his diary that his nine-month-old son would look at himself in the mirror and respond with "Ah", if his name was spoken at the same time. Darwin's conclusion was that this was the first action of self recognition.

One study observed five infants in their progression from the ages of four to 12 months. Their reactions to mirrors placed within their cribs observed behaviors such as smiling at the reflection, speaking to it, and attempting to make contact. Based on the observations in this research a clear self recognition developmental sequence emerges and was similar for all five toddlers. What was discovered were four stages of development that did not change for any of the subjects, though the ages related to each stage did alter. At the first stage, which occurs at the age of four months, infants do not demonstrate much interest in their own reflections, but always show an immediate recognition of their mothers image. At this stage when confronted with that image, the toddler vocalizes and smiles approvingly. The second stage, which lasts until approximately the age of six months, the babies show interest in their own reflections, but their behavior cannot be distinguished from those they exhibit when placed in front of another infant. During the third stage, the infant is capable of distinguishing between his own reflection and that of another toddler and demonstrates a preference towards its own reflection. The fourth and final stage which occurs at the age of 12 months, infants unambiguously can show clear recognition and distinction between other and self, by shifting their gaze , appropriately, when prompted.

Similar larger studies replicated these conscious self recognition patterns in infants and concluded that total and full self identity occurred between the ages of 20 to 24 months, at which time exhibitions of self admiration (preening, strutting) and behavior reflecting embarrassment (blushing) are clearly evident . At the age as early as 20 months, an infant demonstrates knowledge of the bodily components of "Me", and shows an awareness that these attributes are continuous over time. Other studies have shown developments of self identity at even earlier ages. One study based on the reaction of infants to TV images of themselves and others confirmed this development of self identity at a very early age in life. In these studies, babies as young as nine months are able to distinguish live television images of themselves from other images presented, which were demonstrated by increased playful activity to their own television images (Lewis and Brooks-Gunn 1979).

All of these studies demonstrate an infant's ability in the use of contingency and physical attributes in order to demonstrate self identity. All the researchers seem to confirm full and clear evidence of self recognition and the ability to distinguish others, between the ages of 15 to 18 months. Numerous studies seem to confirm that there are in essence four major advances in identity development during the first 24 months of life. From birth to the age of three months, the organizing principle in the development of self-knowledge appears to be an instinctual attraction to the images of others especially of young babies. This behavior is demonstrated by showing marked interest with images and mirrors and pictures of faces. The second development arises between the ages of three and eight months when toddlers demonstrate self identity via contingency cues. This is shown by the infants recognition that he or she is a particular self and is the cause and origin of a moving image that appears in the mirror or on the television screen. The third stage of self identity development occurs between the ages of eight to 12 months, in the recognition by infants of their own stable self-images. It is at this stage that toddlers go beyond simple self recognition and begin to develop self identity as a permanent structure with qualities that endure. Because of the recognition of the permanency, self identity becomes an ever more important principle of organization for the toddler's knowledge of both self as an object as well as a subject. From the ages of 12 to 24 months, the infant begins the development of a self identity based entirely on categorical features independent of the necessity of any contingency knowledge.

The development of identity in self-awareness continues in the child's second and third years of life. One study looked into the child's ability and willingness to try to imitate actions. It consisted of allowing the child to play with some toys for roughly 15 minutes. The researcher then gained the attention of the child and performed an action utilizing several of the toys. Upon seeing the action, some children cried which was interpreted by researchers to signify recognition on the part of the infant of the inability to repeat the action. If this is true, then the child is aware of his or her limitations. These crying reactions varied among children. After the age of 29 months no crying was observed. The data tends to suggest that children become aware of the capabilities of self action at about the age of two were vocalizations such as "I can do this" also increase, signifying increasing self-awareness. These types of studies not only indicate the development of the individual's physical attributes, they also demonstrate the child's awareness of his or her own capabilities and actions, or the active attributes of "Me."

Studies done on the development of identity in older children differ from that for infants, as children are more able to communicate verbally concerning their conceptions of self. Through the use of verbal procedures such as interviews, analysts have been able to investigate the psychological conceptions of children as relate to self identity. These studies concern the concepts a small child has concerning his body and mind, self-awareness, self-definition, and the identity of self in regards to others both in a comparative and relational manner. From this research what can formulated is a chronological structure of the development of identity and self-knowledge during the childhood years. One study of childhood epistemologies, their spontaneous and personal philosophical views of their environment, query children via various open-ended questions focusing on the "I" factors of self identity, such as uniqueness from others and volition. These direct questions were of the form "What is the mind?" "What is the self?" “What is the difference between the mind and the body?" And the responses were further investigated with follow-up questions.

These types of studies reveal that in early childhood self-identity is limited to physical terms. The self is perceived by children at this stage, to be part of the body usually the head, though sometimes the whole body. From this can be deduced that the child confuses body, mind, and self. Because of their limited reasoning capacity, young children at this stage believe that mind and self are actually parts of the body and that any entity, plants, animals, and the deceased, continued to have a mind and self. Consequently, at this stage of development, young children develop their identity as a function of their material and physical attributes, hair color, skin color, possessions, etc.

Even the volitional attributes of self identity concerning motivations are expressed in terms of the physical body as exemplified by comments of these children such as saying the brain tells you what to do. At the age of approximately 8 another level of self-knowledge begins. Children at this stage start to comprehend the volitional and mental capabilities of an individual independent from relationships to the body. It is here they began to distinguish the differences between body and mind, but not to the same extent as occurs later in adolescence. At this point emerges the first signs of the subjective nature of self identity. An individual starts to recognize that he is different from others, not simply because of physical distinctions or material possessions, but also because he or she has different feelings and thoughts. Self-identity starts to result from an internal psychological state, rather than physical characteristics. Other studies confirm this changing comprehension of "I" and the components of "Me" (Selman 1980). At the age of eight years old, the child starts to become aware of the differences between one's outer and inner experiences. Children realize that they are able to control and monitor their own thought processes more directly than others can. It is that this stage that children realize they can produce façades that may not be penetrable by others, demonstrating a knowledge that they're beginning to become aware that they themselves have better access to their own psychological experience than those others around them.

It is at this stage in the development of self identity that the child begins to gain inner strength by developing confidence in his capabilities (Selman 1980, p.100). As children move on to adolescence research shows that self-identity demonstrates increasing social relational and psychological concepts concerning "Me" and greater belief in "I"'s power of volition, as well as the integration of the different aspects of self into an internally consistent structure. It is at this stage that identity clearly demonstrates increasing self-awareness and self-consciousness among young adolescents (White 1972). Adolescents become aware of the possibility of self reflection and as a result, recognize the mind as an active processor and manipulator of experience. This allows a human being at this age to develop new methods of self-control resulting from the individual's self-awareness and self reflective mental powers. Despite recognition of control over emotions and thoughts, adolescents also become aware that certain experiences of the mind are beyond volitional control (i.e. feelings of remorse over wrongdoing). Consequently, the further development of identity in adolescence starts with the notion of "I" as being reflective and active control mechanism over one's experiences while at the same time maintaining recognition that there are borders to this control and awareness. In later adolescence the notion of conscious and unconscious mental experiences are recognized to effect an individual's actions and thoughts. It is during this progression from late childhood through adolescence, the individual's identity recognizes his or her own mental processes as being unique, that self is viewed as an omniscient and privileged processor of the individual's experiences within his environment, leading the individual to the inevitable conclusion, that no other can ever comprehend one's personal experience as fully as oneself.

Research on the development of identity from infancy through adolescence demonstrate certain distinct patterns and shifts from physically based to psychologically based conceptions of self, the development of self characterization by stable social personality factors, the increasing volitional reflection upon individual self in order to obtain better self understanding, until the final integration of all the diverse aspects of identity into a unified structure for self-awareness. Consequently, the development of identity over this time period has been shown to have four basic elements: physical, volitional, social, and psychological. In all age periods, children have to a greater or lesser degree some sort of knowledge of all of these four basic elements needed for the development of identity. As the child ages, knowledge of each of these elements changes in character. During the vertical development that occurs over time within each of these four factors, knowledge of each changes in character. These four factors utilized by an individual in the creation of self identity are the same at each developmental stage, but their dominance varies at any particular level. At each new level a different factor for the development of identity becomes dominant and lends its characteristics to the development of self-identity. The characteristics of the dominant factor become the principles for self understanding at each stage. Consequently, the developmental progression of self-identity with respect to "Me" begins with physicality, moves on to volition, next progresses socially and finally ends with full psychological development.

During the progression from childhood to adolescence, an individual changes his or her understanding of "Me" which interacts with his or her changing understanding of "I" throughout the identity development process. Throughout this cycle there are mutual influences between these two basic components of self understanding. Although the concepts of “Me” and “I” are based on distinct and differential conceptual ideas, their development for the purpose of identity appear to be mutually influential and dependent.


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