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Chapter: Psychology: Development

Socioemotional Development in Adolescence

Socioemotional Development in Adolescence
The physical changes in adolescence are easily visible as young teens undergo a whole-sale remodeling of their bodies.

Socioemotional Development in Adolescence


The physical changes in adolescence are easily visible as young teens undergo a whole-sale remodeling of their bodies. Even more obvious are the changes in the adolescent’s social and emotional world as the adolescent asserts a new independence, his focus shifts from family to friends, and he copes with a wide range of new social, romantic, and sexual experiences.


The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson provided one influential framework for thinking about these and other major life changes in his “eight ages of man” (Figure 14.35). According to Erikson (1963), all human beings endure a series of crises as they go through the life cycle. At each stage, there is a critical confrontation between the self the individual has achieved thus far and the various social and personal demands relevant to that phase of life (Erikson & Coles, 2000). The first few of these “crises” occur in early childhood. However, a major new crisis arises in adolescence and lasts into early adulthood. This crisis concerns self-identity, and Erikson referred to this crisis as

identity versus role confusion.



One of the major tasks of adolescence is determining who one is. As part of this effort toward discovery, adolescents try on many different roles to see which ones fit best—which vocation, which ideology, which ethnic group membership. In many cases, this means trying on roles that will allow the adolescents to mark the clear distinctions between them and their parents. If their parents prefer safe behaviors, this will tempt the adolescents toward dangerous activities. If their parents prefer slow-paced recre-ation, the adolescents will seek excitement (J. R. Harris, 1995, 1998).


The crucial life task at this stage, in Erikson’s view, is integrating changes in one’s body, one’s intellectual capacities, and one’s role in a way that leads to a stable sense of ego identity, which Erikson defined as “a feeling of being at home in one’s body, a senseof ‘knowing where one is going,’ and an inner assuredness of anticipated recognition from those who count”. Developing an ego identity is difficult—and success is not guaranteed. Less satisfactory outcomes include identityconfusion, in which no stable identity emerges, or the emergence of a negative identity, based on undesirable roles in society, such as the identity of a delinquent.



Traditionally, adolescence has been considered a period of great emotional stress. In adolescent years, children break away from parental control and seek to make their own choices about their activities, diet, schedule, and more. At the same time, adolescents are shifting the focus of their social worlds, so that they spend more time with, and gain much more emotional support from, peers rather than family members (Figure 14.36). These shifts allow adolescents to explore a variety of newfound freedoms, including participating in activities away from adult supervision—a prospect that is simultane-ously exciting and emotionally stressful.


With all of these changes, the stage seems to be set for tension between adolescents and their parents, so it is no surprise that, across the centuries, literature (and, more recently, film) has featured youths in desperate conflict with the adult world. Perhaps surprisingly, a number of studies suggest that emotional turbulence is by no means uni-versal among adolescents. There are conflicts, of course, and the nature of the conflict changes over the course of adolescence (Laursen, Coy, & Collins, 1998). But many inves-tigators find that even though “storm and stress” is more likely during adolescence than at other points (Arnett, 1999), for most adolescents “development . . . is slow, gradual, and unremarkable”.


What determines whether adolescence will be turbulent or not? Despite the grow-ing importance of peers during this period, parenting styles continue to make a clear difference. Evidence suggests that the adolescent children of authoritative parents (who exercise their power, but respond to their children’s opinions and reasonable requests) tend to be more cheerful, more responsible, and more cooperative—both with adults and peers (Baumrind, 1967). Teenagers raised by authoritative parents also seem more confident and socially skilled (Baumrind, 1991). This parental pattern is also associated with better grades and better SAT scores as well as better social adjustment (Dornbusch, Ritter, Liederman, Roberts, & Fraleigh, 1987; Steinberg, Elkman, & Mounts, 1989; L . H. Weiss & Schwarz, 1996). These are striking findings and—impressively—are not limited to Western (individualistic) cultures. Authoritative parenting is also associated with better adolescent outcomes in collec-tivistic cultures (Sorkhabi, 2005; Steinberg, 2001).


No matter what the parents’ style, adolescence poses serious challenges as young adults prepare to become autonomous individuals. Sometimes the process does not go well. Some adolescents engage in highly risky forms of recreation. Some end up with unplanned (and undesired) pregnancies. Some commit crimes. Some become drug users. Indeed, statistics show that all of these behaviors (including theft, murder, reck-less driving, unprotected sex, and use of illegal drugs) are more likely during adolescence than at any other time of life (Arnett, 1995, 1999), although it bears emphasizing that only a minority of adolescents experience serious negative outcomes.


Why are risky and unhealthy behaviors more common among adolescents than among other age groups? Several factors seem to contribute (Reyna & Farley, 2006). We have already mentioned one—the absence of a fully mature forebrain may make it more difficult for adolescents to rein in their impulses. As a further element, it seems in many settings that adolescents simply do not think about, or take seriously, the dangers and potential consequences of their behaviors, acting instead as if they are somehow invulnerable to harm or disease (Elkind, 1978). Moreover, other evidence suggests that adolescents are especially motivated to seek out new and exciting experiences, and this sensation seeking regularly exposes them to risk (Arnett, 1995; Keating, 2004; Kuhn, 2006).


Hand in hand with this relative willingness to take risks, adolescents seek more and more to identify with their own generation. As a result, their actions are increasingly influenced by their friends—especially since, in adolescence, people care more and more about being accepted by their friends (Bigelow & LaGaipa, 1975). They are also influenced by other peers, including the circle of individuals they interact with every day and the “crowd” they identify with—the “brains” or the “jocks” or the “druggies” (B. Brown, Moray, & Kinney, 1994). And, of course, if their friends engage in risky activi-ties, it is more likely that they will, too (Berndt & Keefe, 1995; Reed & Roundtree, 1997).


We need to be careful, though, not to overstate the problems caused by peer influence. In fact, most teenagers report that their friends are more likely to discourage bad behav-iors than to encourage them (B. Brown, Clasen, & Eicher, 1986). More generally, most peer influence is aimed at neither good behaviors nor bad ones, but behaviors that are simply different from those of the previous generation, like styles of clothing, hair styles, and slang that adolescents adopt (B. B. Brown, 1990; Dunphy, 1963). Of course, these styles change quickly. As they diffuse rapidly into the broader social world and in some cases become adult fashions, new trends spring up to maintain the differentiation.


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