Having time to play and use our imagination in adolescence is the way we begin to form our identity. Adolescents form their identities from an accumulation of childhood experiences, such as identifying with their parents and others around them while growing up. As a child is observing the people in their environments, they begin to decide what behaviors, roles, and attitudes to integrate within themselves and what to reject (Arnett, 2012). This exploration is captured in Erikson’s term psychosocial moratorium, defined as a period during adolescence when adult roles and responsibilities are postponed (Erikson, 1963). By postponing these adult responsibilities, adolescents have the freedom to use their imagination and have fun trying on different roles, such as falling in love, jumping from one group of friends to another, and/or immersing oneself in different ideologies. This allows adolescents to get a clearer sense of what they are good at, what they believe in, and how they wish to live (Arnett, 2012).

When adolescents cannot avoid taking on adult roles, their capacity to imagine, experience diverse opportunities, and engage in play is restricted. For example, adolescents who need to protect themselves from harsh environments at a young age may be unable to engage in the roles they desire. Therefore, challenging environmental circumstances can prevent adolescents from establishing a secure identity. For instance, if a community experiences high levels of violence, the adolescent may only leave the house when absolutely necessary, which could inhibit his or her ability to attend after-school programs, play outside, or attend a church meeting.

Adolescents who are underprivileged and underserved have less freedom in forming their personal and social identities. Identity is not all or nothing and can be both adaptive and maladaptive. For instance, some people had some opportunity to imagine and play in their youth along with experiences that caused them to take on adult roles. These people may find that they can sometimes experience an identity that allows them to feel control, harmony, and hope. At other times, this person may be responding to their environment in a way that is congruent with a maladaptive role they were required to play as a child, such as feeling the need to take care of others before themselves. Let’s come together and help our children and adolescents play more so that they can exercise the freedom to be the people they want to be.



Arnett, J. J. (2012). Adolescence and emerging adulthood. Pearson Education Limited.

Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society (Rev. ed.). New York: Norton, 1954, 5-56.

Photo Credit: unsplash-logoAnthony Ginsbrook

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