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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Manning

Stress Across the Lifespan—In Three Parts: Part Two

Updated: Mar 22, 2022

Stage 5: Identity vs. Role Confusion—Do I Know and Like Who I Am?

The fifth stage of development usually occurs during adolescence (from about 12 to 20 years of age). The greatest task of this period is to develop a sense of personal identity. The feeling that “I know and like who I am” is the goal. Included in the definition of self is a healthy sexual identity (There are boys and girls, and I am glad I am what I am), a personal moral code (There are right and wrong, and I strive to do what is right), and an initial life plan (I want to work with my hands, have a family, and live in the country). The concern with discovering and being oneself occurs concurrently with the concern for establishing satisfying human relationships and sharing with others. Belonging to a peer group and giving and receiving affection are important to the adolescent.

The young person who suffers from either role confusion or lack of love wanders through the teen-age years without self-understanding, without clear goals, and in an unhappy state. Adolescence is a critical period of life and is often filled with stress, not only for the individual, but for family and friends as well. This is due primarily to the teenager’s natural efforts to escape from parental dominance and to establish an independent identity. Guidance and encouragement from teachers and other adult advisers can be very helpful to the adolescent youth.

Many young people yield to pressures and decide too early what they will do in life and what serious commitments they will make. Thus, they may never realize the range of possibilities open to them. To deal with this problem, Erik Erikson suggests a psychological moratorium—a period of time during which society would give permission to adolescents to experiment with different roles and values so that they could sample life before making major commitments. Going to college, joining the military, taking a gap year to travel, and serving in the Peace Corps are all effective ways to see the world and broaden one’s view.

A word should be said about the other parent in today’s society—Television. It is a major force in young people’s lives. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that the majority of 8-year-olds have the TV playing at all family meals, and the average young person spends more than 6 hours a day watching television (over 45 hours per week, versus 30 hours per week spent in school). The message is clear—television is pervasive. The wise and caring parent will monitor the content and amount of television exposure to children.

The same advice applies to the roles of the computer, internet, and social media in the lives of young people today. Just as television is the other parent, the Internet is the other playground. Unsupervised children have limitless access to information, both helpful and harmful, through website games, social media, and other online communications. Addiction to digital devices such as smart phones and tablets is not uncommon, resulting in under-developed interpersonal skills and human relationships. The solution is as old as Aristotle’s prescription to use reason and be moderate in all behavior.

Today, video games are a dominant form of entertainment, especially for young people. Smart phones and tablets allow access to games anytime, anywhere. Children in the past may have spent hours playing ‘cops and robbers’ while children today may be consumed by first person shooters like ” Call of Duty.” Children today who are interested in sports may spend more hours playing a video game indoors than playing on the field outdoors. Children interested in fantasy may be drawn to games like “World of Warcraft” more than reading books like “Harry Potter.” Children who may have played with Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets and Legos and spent hours building a tree house may now spend more time playing games like “Minecraft.” Video games allow virtual experiences impossible in the real world. They can be addictive as continued play is reinforced through role-playing, obligation to teammates, recognition, and a sense of gradual accomplishment.

There is growing evidence that young people addicted to computer games experience increased social, emotional, and physical problems, including poor school grades, social anxiety, low self-esteem, poor interpersonal skills, struggle with depression, and high risk of obesity and diabetes. Warning signs are obsession with video games, lying about time spent playing video games, loss of interest in other activities, social isolation, defensiveness when confronted, anger when screen time is monitored or reduced, and continuing to play despite negative or harmful consequences.

The “screen time” challenge is compounded when the average American spends over 10 hours daily staring at a screen of some sort. To prevent addiction to television, computer games, smartphones and social media, parents must be role models for their children, as well as supervise their use. There is a truism that children are influenced less by what parents say than by what they do. Elective screen time should come only after other responsibilities have been fulfilled (e.g. homework, household chores, and care for others including pets). The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting viewing of movies, watching television, and playing video games to one hour a day for school age children and two hours per day for teens.

What works and doesn’t work in terms of raising young people? Parental behavior that is either overly authoritarian and controlling or overly permissive and indulgent should be avoided. The best outcomes are achieved by parents who uphold high standards of conduct and simultaneously demonstrate unconditional love for their children.

For many parents, the teenage years are the most challenging years of raising children. Every morning mirror reveals another wrinkle and gray hair traced to the stress of raising teenagers. Some comfort can be drawn from child development expert Benjamin Spock who said that children resist and despise their parents until age 40, when they suddenly become just like them—thus preserving the system.

Challenges: Important developmental tasks of this stage include (1) adjusting to body changes; (2) achieving emotional independence from parents; (3) making new friends of both sexes; (4) developing intellectual skills; and (5) selecting and preparing for an occupation.

Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation—Can I Give Fully of Myself to Others?

The sixth stage of development is usually associated with young adulthood and includes the ages from about 20 to 40. During the 20s, the individual typically begins to develop a dream—a vision of what she or he would like to achieve as an adult. Men’s dreams tend to center on occupational goals. They may want to be a builder, farmer, discoverer, and so on. Women historically have been more likely to have split dreams, including both career and family goals.

During this period, the individual typically “leaves the family nest” physically, psychologically, economically. During this stage, balance must be found between two opposing challenges. The many possibilities of adult life must be explored, keeping options open, while at the same time the young adult must achieve basic occupational success.

Meaningful relationships are sought with people outside the family during this period. A major goal of these relationships is to establish a sense of intimacy—a feeling of closeness and commitment with another person. A relationship in which one can be oneself and can experience unconditional love is what is meant by intimacy. For most young people, establishing intimacy through a loving relationship is a vital concern. The challenge is to maintain one’s separateness while also becoming connected to others. Failure to strike a balance leads to either self-centeredness (under-socialization) or an exclusive focus on the needs of others (over-socialization).

Economically, the young adult begins earning a livelihood. Assets developed during earlier periods (autonomy, initiative, industry, and identity) will be of immense help, while doubt, guilt, inferiority, and role confusion will be liabilities as a career is pursued. Without a loving relationship and meaningful work, the young adult typically experiences a sense of isolation and feelings of being unimportant. Sigmund Freud identified the central issues of this stage of development to be “love and work.” Leo Tolstoy wrote in 1856, “One can live magnificently in this world if one knows how to work and how to love.”

Also, during the period of young adulthood, important personal and social values solidify as the individual considers the purpose of existence and the meaning of life. Finally, young adulthood is usually a period of starting a family and nurturing children. Concern for an independent self expands to include concern for dependent others. During this period, commitments are typically made to a life structure and to significant others.

The challenges of young adulthood can be highly stressful, as Gail Sheehy describes in Passages:

Who’s afraid of growing up? Who isn’t?…There is a moment—an intense and precarious moment—of stark terror. And in that moment, most of us want to retreat as fast as possible because to go forward means facing a truth we have suspected all along: We stand alone.

Older and more experienced adults can be helpful teachers to the young person who is trying to solve the developmental tasks of early adulthood. Particularly important can be the leader in the workplace who is willing to give time and attention to developing others. Also helpful are timely books such as The Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews, The Defining Decade by Meg Jay, and Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx.

Challenges: Important developmental tasks of this stage include (1) finding a satisfactory social group; (2) selecting and learning to live with a mate; (3) starting a family and meeting the physical and psychological needs of young children; (4) getting started in an occupation; and (5) defining personal and social values.

Love and Work

The relationship between mates is more than the sum of the characteristics of two individuals. Equally important is the quality of interactions between the partners. People in successful relationships:

  • Like each other and consider their partner to be their best friend.

  • Agree on roles and like the way their partner is filling his or her role.

  • Are sensitive to and accommodating of each other’s needs and moods.

  • Have high levels of positive and supportive interaction.

  • Are good at addressing problems and resolving conflict, while avoiding personal criticism or blame.

  • Are willing to change in response to each other.

  • Are committed to each other—they love each other and want to live their lives together.

In contrast to successful relationships, people in poor relationships are plagued by four horsemen that increase stress and lower the quality of life for both partners.

The First Horseman: Criticism A pattern of constant criticism, especially about the nature, character, or personality of one’s partner, will wear down and ultimately destroy a relationship.

The Second Horseman: Contempt Criticism can escalate to contempt. At this level of negativity, a relationship can become toxic to the physical and emotional health of one or both partners.

The Third Horseman: Defensiveness If partners engage in defensive behaviors and self-protection, attitudes typically harden, almost assuring breakdown of the relationship.

The Fourth Horseman: Stonewalling This behavior is characterized by disapproval, icy distance, and rigidity. The psychological stonewall prevents trust and respect, the essential elements of any healthy relationship.

Research shows the secret to a positive relationship is not in how disagreements are handled, but in how people interact with each other when they are not fighting. Success requires sharing experiences and focusing on each other’s positive qualities.

It can be said that the exchange of simple affection is the true secret of a fulfilling relationship. When we are accepted and valued by those who know all about us and like us anyway, we know the happiness involved in a deep and satisfying relationship. To personalize the subject, is there someone in your world who believes that you are a special person and who loves you with all of his or her heart?

For most people, the early career sets the stage for all that follows. No matter what field or profession you pursue, the following guide will be of help. Before your middle years, do these eight things:

  • Know Yourself. Know who you are and what is important to you. This will anchor you and make you efficient. The time and energy required to do this can be substantial, and these are best spent in your youth, not in midlife when the needs of others should be the focus of your attention.

  • Become an Expert. Develop a body of knowledge and skills that people need and will pay you to do. Examples are carpentry, nursing, accounting, cooking, singing, writing, plumbing, and computer expertise. In the final analysis, your ability to perform a wanted service is the best insurance you can have.

  • Establish Your Style. Whatever methods or tools you use—early riser, suit and tie, fresh flowers, thank-you cards, pickup truck—be sure they are both productive and comfortable for you. Do this when you are young. Nothing is more disconcerting than to see a mid-career professional still trying to find his or her style. Develop work habits that make you truly productive. Watch successful people in any line of work—writing music, laying brick, or practicing medicine. Each has developed a distinctive and productive way of doing the craft, trade, or profession.

  • Build a Network. This is usually done through personal interactions on the job, in the neighborhood, and in the family. It is best done by generous and gracious service to others—paid or unpaid. A web of trust, respect, and mutual support will result that will build relationships and benefit all parties for years to come.

  • Focus. Cherish the past, plan for the future, but live in the moment. Only then will all of your faculties be functioning on the task at hand. By living life fully in the moment, you maximize all you have been and realize the full potential of which you are capable.

  • Create a Cushion. Ideally, you don’t want to be in your midlife years and unable to say, “I quit.” By this time, you will know in your heart the hills worth dying on, versus minor matters of opinion or style. When faced with such a hill, your conscience will cry out for expression. It will help if you have economic strength to support it.

  • Be True to Your Values. Yogi Berra once said, “Everything is easy until it becomes difficult.” This is where integrity comes in. Integrity requires honest assessment and action, and it requires courage to live by your convictions even at self-risk or sacrifice. Integrity is the foremost requirement for a successful career and life.

  • Stay Young, Stay Foolish. Computer pioneer Steve Jobs addressed the graduation class of Stanford University with this advice: 1) be who you are; 2) do what you love; and 3) stay young, stay foolish. Jobs’s challenge applies before young adulthood, as well as after.

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like, “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” and if the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”—Steve Jobs

Related Readings

The Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews

Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx

Related Ted Talks

Be a Man by Joe Ehrmann

Source: Manning, G., et al. (2016). Stress: Living and Working in a Changing World. Martin, TN: Savant Learning Systems.


George Manning, Author Professor of Psychology and Business at Northern Kentucky University LinkedIn

Jennifer Zimmerman, Editor

Freelance editor, writer, and consultant

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