What Is the Definition of an Identity Moratorium?

How do tweens and teens embark on this journey of identity development

Some adolescents face an identity crisis.
Some adolescents face an identity crisis. Lisa Pines/Getty Images

What is the definition of an identity moratorium? Simply put, it is one step in the process of finding a sense of self. It is a period of active searching for one's occupational, religious, ethnic or other form of identity. Learn how teens and tweens embark on this quest to find themselves with this overview of identity moratoriums.

What a Crisis of Identity Looks Like

During a moratorium, individuals typically explore many different options.

This includes examples such as visiting different types of churches. Perhaps they were raised Catholic but decide to visit a Protestant church. They may do so without feeling particularly committed to any one approach. In other words, a person in a moratorium is undergoing an active "identity crisis."

While this period may feel confusing and difficult to endure, many psychologists believe that an individual must go through a moratorium before he or she can form a true sense of identity (a state called identity achievement).

When Identity Moratoriums Typically Happen

Identity moratoriums often occur during the late tween and teen years, as individuals struggle to figure out "who they are." This is a normal part of personality development. Notably, though, an identity moratorium can happen at any time in one's life. In addition, moratoriums usually occur for different types of identity (e.g., political, racial or cultural identity) at different times.

In other words, we rarely undergo crises about multiple parts of our identity at once.

A person who was raised in a biracial, atheist and apolitical home may first go on a quest to establish her racial identity. Say she has both Japanese and English heritage but grew up in a largely white community and didn't reflect on her racial background much.

In adolescence, this person may begin to take an interest in her Japanese ancestry, reading books about her heritage, the treatment of Japanese Americans and study the Japanese language.

By the late teen years, this person may begin to express an interest in religion as well, perhaps fueled by growing up in a home where no religion was practiced. The person may decide to explore Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity or various new age religions. She may decide to join a particular religion or live as an atheist, as her parents had.

In college, this person may get involved in political activism. She may leave university a staunch leftist who's disturbed that his parents take no particular interest in sociopolitical issues.

While this individual explored different aspects of her identity at different times, her identity moratorium spanned puberty to young adulthood. At that point, he reached identity achievement.

The Origins of the Term 'Identity Moratorium'

Canadian developmental psychologist James Marcia coined the phrase "identity moratorium." He made it clear that identity moratoriums were first and foremost a time of exploration for young people rather than a time for them to commit to any one cause or identity.

He first published work on identity statuses during the 1960s, but psychologists continue to build on his research today. Theorist Erik Erikson also wrote extensively about identity crises.

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