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TCK Adolescent Identity Formation

Identity Formation in TCK Adolescents and Young Adults


In Western individualistic cultures, identity formation is the process by which a young person establishes an identity independent of their family of origin.  It plays the same societal role that rites of passage play in more collectivistic cultures.  Without a separate identity, a person is not seen by others in Western societies as a true adult, but rather is seen as dependent and immature.  However, the process of identity formation is not as easily quantified as is a discrete rite of passage.  It is a long, sometimes painful process, of exploration, discovery, and eventual commitment to a new identity.  This process can be especially complex for a young adult TCK for a number of reasons.


Erik Salomonsen was a TCK who became fascinated with the process of identity formation, probably because of his own personal struggles in this area.  He was born a Danish Jew, who never knew his biological father.  He was adopted by his German step-father, after his mother immigrated to Germany and was married, and his name was changed to Erik Homburger.  He was not accepted by his German classmates because he was Jewish, and was rejected by his Jewish classmates because he looked Danish.  He eventually immigrated to the USA to escape the Nazi persecutions, and became an American citizen, adopting the name of Erik Erikson, thereby declaring his identity to be self-determined!  He became the first psychologist to do research on the process of identity formation, first among Native Americans, and later among young soldiers returning from WWII. 


Erikson posited that identify formation is a normal crisis that begins during adolescence.  He believed that until a person resolved his/her identity crisis, they would be unable to address the next developmental task; that of establishing life-long intimate relationships.  He believed that a person is unable to share him/herself with another person until they know who they are, and what they believe and value.  Erikson’s work on identity formation has stood the test of time, and is accepted by most psychologists to be a good working model for understanding the process of becoming an emotionally healthy adult.  Identity includes a settled sense of where I come from, who I am as a separate person from my family of origin, what I believe, what I value, my avocational interests and my occupational goals for the future.


TCKs typically return to live in their passport country right at the beginning of this process of identity formation.  Most TCKs say that the hardest question for them to answer is, “Where are you from?”  This ambiguity about cultural and national identification strikes at the heart of identity.  Some TCKs become chameleons, adopting the cultural and national identification of whomever they are living around at the moment.  Others refuse to acknowledge the cultural and national heritage of their passport country, and instead adopt the cultural identity given by the country in which they were raised.  Neither approach results in a fully developed sense of identity, as both approaches deny some part of who that person truly is.  A TCK who has successfully resolved this part of their identity crisis will embrace both cultures and nations as contributing to their multi-cultural identity.


Establishing a separate identity from one’s family of origin commonly begins in North American culture in the early teen years.  Adolescents get a driver’s license, spend much of their time with friends outside the family circle, and begin to explore new ideas, interests, and beliefs.  TCKs returning to North America at the age of 18 often have not even begun this aspect of identify formation.  The unique situation that most TCKs experience is that their parents’ vocation defines who they are.  Their status as expatriates often determines who is in their social circle, their faith community, and the role others expect them to play.  Young people need some psychological or physical space to be able to begin to separate from the identity given them by their family.  Although TCKs often attend boarding schools and so are physically away from their parents, their entire life is still determined by their family identity and their parent’s vocational choices.  It is not until they return alone to their passport country that they experience the psychological space to begin the process of discovering who they are as separate persons in the world.


It is during adolescence and young adulthood when a person evaluates the beliefs and values they have been taught as a child, and either modify these beliefs or affirm them.  James Fowler, who studied the process of faith development, noted that in order for a person to develop an Individuative Faith, they need to experience a physical break with the religious authorities they relied on in their youth.  This is necessary for them to be able to question what they have been taught, and determine what they personally believe.  One characteristic of a person transitioning into an Individuative Faith is what Fowler called “cognitive conceit.”  This is a common attitude among young people characterized by the belief that older religious leaders are hypocritical, because they see inherent inconsistencies in the leaders’ behavior.  Young people do not know themselves well enough, yet, to realize that everyone lives inconsistently in some measure!  Negativity toward religious leaders can be quite disconcerting to parents as they watch their child begin to evaluate the faith in which they were raised. 


Expatriate faith communities are unusually close-knit and often quite homogeneous.  Most TCKs generally do not begin the process of evaluating their religious beliefs until they experience a break from their expatriate faith community.  Upon return to the passport country the TCK is immediately bombarded by a large variety of religious beliefs and practices.  This can be a challenging part of establishing an individual identity for the TCK.  Usually, young people will eventually affirm much of what they were taught as children, but they may join a different denomination or affirm some subtle difference in theology from their parents.  Sometimes, however, the young person will embrace a completely different religious system than the one in which they were raised.  Although this young adult is moving forward in their identity formation, this outcome causes pain and stress to the rest of the family.


James Marcia built upon the work of Erikson.  He identified three ways that a young adult can become side-tracked in this process of identity formation.  The first he called Identity Foreclosure.  In this scenario, a young adult does not investigate any other option for their vocation, beliefs or values than the ones presented to them by their family of origin.  There is no searching or self-discovery, but simple acceptance of the identity they inherited from their parents.  The second unhealthy option is Identity Diffusion.  In this scenario the young person still has not done any searching or self-discovery, instead they are using the identity inherited from their parents as the template of what they don’t want to be.  This is usually expressed as angry rebellion against everything their parents have taught them.  Although the young person has rejected the identity given them by their family, they are no closer to knowing who they are, and what they believe, than is the person stuck in Identity Foreclosure!  The third scenario is called Identity Moratorium.  In this situation the young person starts out with healthy self-exploration and discovery of the options that are open to them with respect to vocation, beliefs, values, etc., but they never reach the point of committing to an identity.  These adults are constantly trying on new belief systems, new values, or new vocations, but without deciding who they really want to be. 


Parents can help their child avoid these detours to identity formation by fostering an atmosphere of openness to discuss honest questions their child may have about what they have been taught, not only concerning religious beliefs, but also values, and vocational options.  Parents should encourage their child to explore many different vocational options, not just the career track that they, themselves, chose.  Never underestimate the power of your relationship with your child in helping them think through these difficult questions.  Communicating acceptance of your child, even when you disagree with a tentative conclusion they may have reached, allows you to continue to be an influence in their lives as their identity is being formed.


Christian parents have an advantage that other parents do not have as they watch their children wrestle with forming an identity.  We know that the Holy Spirit is as concerned with our child’s well-being as we are.  He has promised to continue the work that was begun in them, until Jesus returns.  Jesus is the Christian’s source for identity, values, and even vocational direction.  He is the ultimate parent, and he will be there to guide, correct, and encourage our adult children until they reach the full measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.


Cindy Duff, MA

Director of Compass Ministries

Compass Care and Compass House

A division of D & D Missionary Homes

St. Petersburg, Florida

Posted By: Cindy Duff on Aug 18, 2011 03:23PM

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