Adolescence: Social and Relational Changes
When asked to describe themselves, very young children tend to mention their possessions ("I have a red tricycle") or their appearances ("I am tall"). By elementary school, children include social group membership ("I am a Boy Scout"), relationships ("I am Malika's friend"), and some psychological traits ("I am nice") in their definitions (Livesley & Bromley, 1973). By adolescence, descriptions become more complex. Adolescents realize that who they are might change with different settings or relationships ("I am shy at school but outgoing with my friends"). They also can imagine who they might be ("I am going to become a better athlete by practicing harder"). Compared to children in middle childhood, adolescents view themselves in terms of what makes them different or unique from their peers, showing that they value their individuality. Adolescents also are capable of reflecting on and evaluating themselves, which leads them to believe that they should be able to make their own decisions and create their own set of values.
These changes in thinking about the self are tied to the broader issue of developing an identity, which involves the integration of all the different aspects of the self. Adolescents form their identities by trying on different ideas, appearances, behaviors, and relationships. Adults may sometimes be frustrated by an adolescent who wants to attend a service from a different religion, dress in a nontraditional way, or hang out with a different set of friends. Although adolescents still need adult guidance, this experimentation and exploration of different possibilities of the self are considered essential in forming a healthy identity. Once an identity is established, it can be used to guide the individual's future actions.
At one time it was believed that adolescents needed to deindividuate from adults and to completely separate from adult values to be emotionally healthy. Now researchers realize that a more appropriate goal is for adolescents to become autonomous, gaining ownership over their thoughts and behaviors, but to remain emotionally connected to others (Ryan & Lynch, 1989). Still, adults and adolescents must negotiate the timing and extent of this independence.
In his expectancy-violation-realignment model, Collins (1990) suggests that the handing over of authority from adults to adolescents is a gradual process. Both parents and adolescents carry expectancies about how the other should behave (e.g., an expectation that the adolescent will adhere to a curfew). Times of rapid change, such as adolescence, lead to violations of expectations (e.g., curfew is broken), resulting in conflict. To maintain the relationship (and any hope of influencing the adolescent in the future), the parent and adolescent need to resolve their conflict and realign their behavior (e.g., adolescent resolves never to break curfew again) or, more commonly, their expectations (e.g., a new rule is created, stating that the adolescent must phone for a curfew extension). In this way, the relationship is maintained, and more and more control is gradually relinquished to the adolescent.
Much of the conflict surrounding issues of autonomy concerns rather mundane issues such as hairstyle, clothing, and curfew (Steinberg, 1990). In a study of autonomy, Smetana (1988) asked adolescents in the 6th, 8th, and 10th grades and their parents to think about 24 hypothetical situations and to decide whether the adolescent or the parent should be in control of the issue. Some of these issues concerned friendship (e.g., when to see friends, who your friends are), personal matters (e.g., watching television, choosing clothes), and prudential matters (e.g., smoking, eating junk food, drinking), while others concerned moral issues (e.g., taking someone else's money). Not surprisingly, parents and adolescents each believed that they should retain control of most of the issues, with adolescents tending to view the issues as a matter of personal choice. However, both parents and adolescents agreed that parents should retain jurisdiction when the issue was a moral one. So although adolescent striving for autonomy creates conflict within the family, most adolescents retain the values of their family and wish to maintain those relationships (Collins, 1997). In fact, very few adolescents (about 3% of girls and 5%-9% of boys) reject their parents outright (Rutter, Graham, Chadwick, & Yule, 1976). Instead, parents remain important figures in adolescents' lives and are valued for the aid and advice they provide (Furman & Burmester, 1992).
Adolescents' desire for autonomy extends beyond the reach of the family and into the classroom.
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