Identity Distress Throughout Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: Age Trends and Associations with Exploration and Commitment Processes


Nina Palmeroni, KU Leuven, Belgium
Laurence Claes, KU Leuven, Belgium and University of Antwerp, Belgium
Margaux Verschueren, KU Leuven, Belgium
Annabel Bogaerts, KU Leuven, Belgium
Tinne Buelens, KU Leuven, Belgium
Koen Luyckx, KU Leuven, Belgium and University of the Free State, South Africa


Identity formation constitutes a central developmental task during adolescence and the late teens and twenties, a period called emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2000). Throughout this life phase, a certain amount of identity distress is to be expected and even contributes to one’s identity development. However, for some individuals, such identity issues can cause a considerable amount of distress leading to pathological forms of identity distress. To target individuals who experience substantial difficulties regarding identity issues, different diagnostic categories of identity distress were developed, namely identity disorder (DSM-III; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1980) and identity problem (DSM-IV; APA, 1994). Despite the importance of identity-related distress in young people’s development, a detailed picture of identity distress throughout adolescence and emerging adulthood is largely lacking. Accordingly, the present study examined (a) the prevalence of identity distress in adolescence and emerging adulthood, (b) age trends in identity distress from early adolescence through the late twenties, and (c) associations between identity distress and identity processes and how these associations differed among these developmental periods.


The study combined seven cross-sectional samples, examining three developmental periods (adolescence, emerging adulthood, and late twenties). A total of 2,286 participants (14 to 30 years; Mage = 18.04; SDage = 3.06; 55.7% females) filled in self-report questionnaires on identity distress (The Identity Distress Survey; IDS) and identity processes (Dimensions of Identity Development Scale; DIDS). To determine the prevalence of identity disorder and identity problem diagnoses in our sample, we calculated the prevalence of participants scoring above the cut-off score of criteria for identity disorder and identity problem. To investigate whether a linear or quadratic function would be the best approximation trends observed in identity distress, a hierarchical multiple regression analysis was conducted. Finally, we examined whether the correlations between identity processes and identity distress differed among the developmental periods.


Based on the IDS data, 10.30% of the total sample met the identity disorder diagnosis, while 18,90% met the identity problem diagnosis. Furthermore, identity distress demonstrated a curvilinear age trend with the highest levels generally occurring in emerging adulthood. Concerning the associations between identity distress and identity processes, we found some differences among the developmental periods. More specifically, identity distress was especially positively related to exploration in breadth and negatively to commitment making in the late twenties, and not so much in adolescence and the early twenties.


In sum, the present study provides important insights into our knowledge of identity distress throughout adolescence and emerging adulthood. First, the prevalence of identity distress seems to indicate that many young individuals struggle excessively with identity-related questions. Second, theoretically important age trends in identity distress were uncovered, showing that the highest levels of identity distress generally occurred during emerging adulthood. Third, the strongest association between identity distress and exploration in breadth and commitment making were found during the late twenties. These results may indicate that extending one’s explorations of different alternatives (in the relative absence of identity commitments), could be symptomatic of identity distress during this life period.

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