Forming an identity is a process that extends throughout childhood and adolescence. In fact, it continues throughout life as we add new roles, drop former roles, and grow in skill and experience. The process begins in early childhood, after toddlers come to recognize themselves in mirrors and photos, grasping a sense of, “That’s me.”
Identity is a construction. Children build or construct a sense of self. It is not something that is given by biology, defined by temperament or taught by others. It is created by each individual and it is both a cognitive and social construction.
Cognitively, a sense of self involves mental representations. Each individual comes to distinguish between a real and ideal view of him or herself. We evaluate the self across different situations and different kinds of experiences and eventually comes to create and integrate multiple aspects of the self.
Socially, each individual observes the behavior and reactions of others, learning culturally and socially valued roles and ways of being. A sense of self comes in part through interactions with family, friends, teachers, peers and others. Conversations and narratives — the stories we humans tell that help interpret our daily life — provide a framework for self creation. In addition, the opinions and reactions of others influence a child’s self concept. Gradually these views and opinions become internalized, both negative interpretations (judgements, being punished or reprimanded or criticized) and positive ones (being respected or admired, experiencing warm, accepting and nurturing views).
A full sense of self involves multiple components.
Self recognition: being able to recognize or identify oneself
Individual self: those aspects of self that make a person unique
Relational self: aspects of self that involve connections to others and interpersonal relationships
Collective self: an individual’s concept of him- or herself within a group, including such things as gender, race, ethnicity and religion.
The sense of self and what it includes evolves in a fairly consistent way during childhood and adolescence, beginning with concrete qualities (I’m a girl, I’m strong, I have a brother), then including a sense of more internal subjective qualities (I’m thoughtful, I’m determined). It gradually moves to an awareness of how some aspects of self shift depending on context and comes to include one’s values and sense of self esteem. Teens and emerging adults often actively explore different possible identities, sometimes trying out different ways of being and considering various goals, careers, political views and roles before they settle on a mature identity.
From that mature base, we continue to grow, responding to experiences, taking on new roles (such as becoming a parent), relinquishing roles (as when one is no longer a student, or when one looses a spouse through divorce or death), building emotional intelligence, and sometimes even consciously cultivating qualities such as openness or patience or resilience.