University of Central Florida Undergraduate Research Journal - The Role of Parenting and Attachment in Identity Style Development
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The Role of Parenting and Attachment in
Identity Style Development

By: Kaylin Ratner | Mentor: Dr. Steven Berman


According to Erikson's (1956) theory of psychosocial development, identity is the crowning achievement of adolescence. That is, teenagers are faced with the challenge of answering the overwhelming question: who am I? While some adolescents address issues related to their sense of self, others remain ambivalent and rely on external cues to dictate their identity. In either case, many studies have shown that the formation of a carefully constructed identity is related to mental soundness and general well-being (e.g., Sroufe, 2005; Waterman, 2007; Berman, Weems, & Stickle, 2006). Furthermore, as proposed by Erikson (1950), one's identity guides each subsequent stage of psychosocial development. Given the importance of identity formation, one might wonder what factors determine how this challenge is resolved.

A variety of elements have been studied in regard to their role in identity development, such as peers, culture, school context, and psychopathology; however, one of the strongest influences lies in the earliest form of socialization: the parent-child relationship (e.g., Meeus, Oosterwegel, & Vollebergh, 2002; Årseth, Kroger, Martinussen, & Marcia, 2009; Grotevant & Cooper, 1985). Associations have been established between aspects of parenting and university students' identity processing styles (Berzonsky, 2004; Smits et al., 2008; Soenens, Berzonsky, Dunkel, & Papini, 2011). This study, however, is the first to investigate the tie between parenting style and identity style in high school students to see if exposure to a certain parenting style influences the ways in which adolescents synthesize incoming identity-relevant information, which is eventually used to construct their sense of self. Given Erikson's (1968) conceptualization of identity as a construct that guides later development, such influential factors are pivotal to researchers' understanding of identity formation as a whole.

The Identity Crisis

Before one can examine how adolescents discover their sense of identity, a broader understanding of psychosocial development must be understood. Erik Erikson is most well-known for his work on psychosocial development throughout the life cycle (1950). Erikson proposed that, at various points throughout life, individuals encounter a crisis relative to the social demands of their respective age group. Each stage has two outcomes that fall on either end of a spectrum. On one end of the continuum, there is an adaptive result, in which case, a virtue is learned and on the other end, the virtue is not learned and the result is a maladaptive outlook on the world in terms of the virtue, known as a core pathology.

Of Erikson's psychosocial stages, Identity vs. Role Confusion has received the most attention. As with the other crises, one may end up at any point along a continuum between identity and role confusion, in which the outcome is dependent on the extent to which an individual has committed to such things as an occupation and an ideology. Erikson (1950) holds that the successful outcome, the formation of a sense of ego identity, is a homogenous set of intra- and interpersonal characteristics, perceptions, and ideals represented by continuity and stability. Moreover, Erikson (1956) speculated that the ego identity, being comprised of all of our childhood experiences, should appropriately prepare us to deal with the challenges of adulthood. Following the conceptualization of the psychosocial theory, and in particular, identity development, researchers have followed up with different categorizations and modalities to describe the identity development process. In the following sections, the way that current research thinks of identity and how one forms an identity will be explored.

Identity Status

Operationalizing some of Erikson's ideas, Marcia (1966) defined four identity statuses based on the level of identity exploration (i.e., the degree to which one has looked at and tested alternative beliefs) and commitment (i.e., the degree to which one displays continuity in his or her values) that an individual participates in during the identity journey. The identity statuses he described are known by identity researchers as diffusion (low exploration / low commitment), foreclosure (low exploration / high commitment), moratorium (high exploration / low commitment), and achievement (high exploration / high commitment).

Identity-processing Style

Identity-processing style is the way in which an individual digests, interprets, and utilizes identity-relevant information (Berzonsky, 1989; Berzonsky, 1992). Three categories of identity-processing styles have been identified: informational, normative, and diffusive-avoidant. Before making any one commitment, individuals with an informational processing style tend to enthusiastically seek out applicable identity information as self-motivated explorers. Individuals who adhere to the informational identity style tend to critically evaluate and select information from the sources around them to construct an identity. In a sample of university students, Berzonsky and Neimeyer (1994) found that due to the individual's tendency to explore his/her options, the informational identity style has been positively related to both the achievement and the moratorium statuses. On the other hand, the normative identity style is characterized by a tendency to uncritically adopt ideas of prominent figures in the adolescent's life. These prominent figures include peers, teachers, and parents. Furthermore, individuals of the normative identity style are likely to firmly adhere to their beliefs once instilled and will defend against contradicting viewpoints. The rigid adherence to belief, coupled with the consumption of ideas that require little exploration, results in the normative identity style being closely linked to the foreclosed identity status. Finally, diffuse-avoidant individuals may be bombarded with information, with which they are likely to do nothing. These individuals tend to procrastinate when making decisions related to their identity until contextual factors force a decision by indecision (e.g., it becomes too late to take advantage of an opportunity). The diffuse-avoidant identity style has been related to the diffuse identity status due to the combination caused by procrastination (which leads to a lack of commitment) and low motivation to explore philosophies.

These identity styles have been linked, both directly and indirectly, to a number of outcomes. The informational and normative identity styles are largely the most adaptive due to their tendency to elicit the least amount of neuroticism (Dollinger, 1995) and highest degrees of well-being (Vleioras & Bosma, 2005). Further, the informational and normative identity styles are linked to the stable identity statuses characterized by high identity commitment (Berzonsky & Neimeyer, 1994). Commitment to an identity has largely been linked to lower levels of anxiety (Berman, Weems, and Stickle, 2006), maladjustment (Thoits, 1999), and distress (Berman, Montgomery, & Kurtines, 2004). Such complications that arise as the result of a lack of identity commitment (typically the function of a diffuse-avoidant identity style [Berzonsky & Neimeyer, 1994]) stress the importance of identity development for psychological health. Given this evidence that suggests that identity is related to key clinical concerns such as anxiety and other intrapersonal distress, what influences identity development is of great concern. However, there is a significant lack of knowledge in the literature pertaining to younger adolescent populations. This may raise questions concerning how younger adolescents form their identity and if the significant factors related to identity development in university samples are similar to those found in the younger adolescent population.


As mentioned in the introduction, parents and parenting styles have been identified as strongly influencing identity. Baumrind (1971) placed parents into three categories according to the degree to which they display two variables—responsiveness (warmth, love, support, care) and demandingness (control, supervision)—during child rearing. The first of Baumrind's categories is the authoritative (high responsiveness/high demandingness) parenting style. Authoritative parents set boundaries, explain punishments, and allow the child to actively participate in the family decision making process. In Baumrind's next category, the authoritarian parenting style (low responsiveness/high demandingness), parents tend to wield absolute power in the household. They value obedience, and expect the rules and restrictions they set to be closely followed. Baumrind's final parenting style is indulgent/permissive parenting (high responsiveness/low demandingness). This laissez-faire approach encourages the expression of the child's autonomy and dreams, but does not set boundaries. Maccoby and Martin (1983) expanded Baumrind's paradigm by identifying a fourth parenting style, known as uninvolved/negligent parenting (low responsiveness/low demandingness). Other than providing the child with his basic necessities, negligent parents are likely to practice a hands-off approach to parenting. The theoretical variations in parenting style, which result from different combinations and degrees of warmth and control, have been examined by multiple researchers who have related these combinations to various adolescent outcomes, such as school success, adaptability, and competence (Steinberg, Lamborn, Darling, Mounts, & Dornbusch, 1994; Steinberg, Lamborn, Dornbusch, & Darling, 1992).


Attachment, as defined by Bowlby (1969), is a deeply emotional bond between two people. It was speculated that attachment developed in children as a survival tool to gauge when exploration of the environment was safe. Bowlby also suggests that an internal working model develops, in which children form expectations about how they may be treated by others in later social settings as a result of their experiences in early social interactions (e.g., parenting). This internal working model proposes that individuals learn that they are either loveable or unlovable and that others are either capable or incapable of loving others.

Adult attachment styles share almost the same qualities as the attachment experienced as a child with primary caregivers (Shaver & Hazan, 1993). Adults falling into the secure attachment category tend to have healthy, compassionate, trusting, and helpful relationships with others. These individuals tend to see themselves as both loveable and others as capable of love and generally trustworthy (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991). According to Bartholomew and Horowitz, all other individuals are generally classified as insecure. That is, they either do not perceive themselves as loveable, others as capable of love, or both. Those fitting into the preoccupied attachment style desire close and intimate relationships, but are likely to not believe in their own deservingness of love, which results in clinginess and high anxiety in close relationships. The dismissive and fearful attachment styles tend to fall into Shaver and Hazan's avoidant category and are characterized by their tendency to circumvent close relationships due to their general belief that others are not capable of love and trust. The difference, however, is that while dismissive individuals are generally confident about their ability to love others and about their deservingness of love, fearful individuals are not.

Links Among Styles >>