Psychosocial Stages of Later Childhood

It is when the child arrives at Freud's fifth stage that the psychosexual and psychosocial theories must part from their previous chronological company. Freud's fifth stage is the genital stage: the completion of psychosexual development. With puberty, the person attains the same capacities and erogenous orientation as an adult and thus becomes as mature, psychosexually speaking, as any adult. For Erikson's theory, however, the onset of puberty does not mark the completion of psychosocial development, which continues throughout life, but only its next stage: adolescence (ages twelve to twenty-one). Once more, the changing bodily zone implicates a changing social existence, for puberty is more than a merely chemical or hormonal change. More than the body, it is the whole person who is transformed by this flood of new issues and possibilities. This eruption provokes questions that had been taken for granted before. 'Who am I becoming? Who am I to be?" appear, in small and large ways. The new adolescent must confront such new questions when on a date, at a party, or even when deciding what to wear to school each day. In other words, the adolescent ego has now developed a self-reflective loop, in which its own identity is now taken as an issue to be formed, a task that it must resolve for itself.

The formation of ego-identity can be an especially acute challenge in modern culture, where the traditional embeddedness in extended families and communities is often no longer available to provide the network of identifications with which to resolve these questions. Instead, adolescent peer groups become the key psychosocial relationship for this stage. These reference groups offer the adolescent the prospect of trying on a new identity by embracing certain subgroup values, norms, and perspectives. This experimental phase is an acting "as if'—as if the person were who they are trying out to be.

Optimally, adolescents will have the latitude to assume and discard prospective identities within the fluidity of what Erikson called a psychosocial moratorium—a time out from having to bear the same weight of consequences for their choices that an adult would. For example, pledging a life time commitment to a boyfriend at thirteen does not, in fact, entail the same level of commitment that a marriage would; nor does deciding to major in accounting upon arriving at college actually bind one to follow through with a lifetime career as an accountant. With sufficient opportunity to explore and try out various tentative choices, adolescents will, optimally, conclude this stage by arriving at a more clarified sense of their own values and sense of direction. If this is not achieved, adolescents will either be left with a feeling of identity diffusion or have prematurely foreclosed on a possible identity that does not fit.

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