Those who saw the videos of Paris Hilton leaving jail this week may have noticed some peculiarities. After carefully observing her mannerisms as she stepped out into the crowd, one might have asked themselves the question, “Is Paris really 26 years old?!?”

And isn’t this a question we too often find ourselves asking of adults these days? It appears our American culture frequently produces adults who engage in child-like behaviors and find themselves paralyzed when faced with the demands of the real world.

As Paris left jail, she demonstrated giddy, bashful expressions with one hand holding the other and then letting go, appearing to be in search of a stance that seemed to fit the environment. Her behaviors eerily resembled that of a young adolescent girl. How is it that this 26 year old sex symbol is running for her Mom like a 10 year old and decompensating like a toddler while facing stressors perhaps like none she has had to deal with before? The whole Paris jail scene left some experts thinking, wow, this is a troubled, developmentally stunted young woman. Maybe Paris’s meltdown in jail was for real and maybe Sheriff Lee Baca wasn’t so off base with his concern for her mental health. Maybe Paris, like so many other women in America, simply need to grow up!

Those who study psychology are familiar with Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory of development. According to this theory, one stage individuals pass through is that of identity versus identity confusion (Development Through the Lifespan, Third Edition, L. Berk 2004). Those who develop a healthy sense of identity become productive, adaptable adults who are able to prepare well for psychological challenges. On the other hand, when our society restricts the choices of an individual and they somehow find themselves on a path that is not necessarily a good “match” for their true identity, this can cause a person to become stuck in what Erikson called identity confusion. These individuals have committed themselves to a role without exploring alternatives and are often intolerant of stress and have difficulty adjusting to challenging situations. It is possible that Paris (along with our society’s encouragement) started herself on a role of “rich, dumb, cute sexy symbol” and never made it successfully through the stage of forming a solid identity.

From what Paris has said in recent interviews, it sounds as if she is now in search of a more meaningful role for herself. Erikson’s Theory of adolescent development involves an individual becoming what he called a “rational agent“ (Development Through the Lifespan, 2004) . This is an individual who learns to act on the basis of reason, takes responsibility for ones behaviors and who is in search for their real, true identity. Maybe facing jail was just what Paris needed to successfully begin this imperative developmental phase.

It seems rather clear that our upper-middle class culture often nurtures a self-absorbed, pleasure-seeking human being and that Paris is not alone. Parents, teachers, and our society as a whole need to help young women and men develop into beings who can evolve in a healthy manner. A strong identity develops when individuals experience selfless acts from an early age and when youngsters learn to contribute to daily tasks that help keep our lives and our world balanced. Only then may our children place their own identity in the context of how they can contribute positively to the bigger world that we are all a part of.

Hopefully, the world will watch Paris begin the process of her own identity formation, which will allow her to develop into a healthy adult. Contrary to Barbara Walters claiming that Paris’s jail story is somehow “beneath her“, maybe in fact Paris serves as a perfect example of what Americans across the nation are facing with regards to mental health. Like so many other human beings who becomes stunted in their psychological development, perhaps Paris is partly a product of our American culture that itself is in the midst of identity confusion.

Sources:

Development Through the Lifespan, Third Edition, L. Berk 2004

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mJ5Fvqlvwg&eurl=

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2007/06/27/entertainment/e032618D19.DTL

http://www.tmz.com/2007/06/27/did-paris-mind-deteriorate-dangerously-in-jail/

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