Identity Development in Adolescence
Psychologically, all adolescents need room to grow and safe places to test their newly emerging selves. Using knowledge of the processes of exploration and commitment as a framework, counselors can start the assessment process by considering how the particular adolescent before them is going about meeting her needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. The ways in which adolescents try to meet each of these needs will look very different at age 14 than they did at age 8. Some teenage behaviors seem strange and annoying, but they might not be dangerous. Helping parents and others sort this out can be very helpful. In other cases when alternatives may be lacking, teenagers might try to meet their fundamental needs in ways that are potentially harmful. Helping adolescents find healthy and developmentally appropriate routes for expressing independence, for feeling part of a social group, and for experiencing satisfaction in accomplishment provides a sound basis for helping.
Based upon the material presented in this chapter, counselors should also keep in mind that the teenage years are a time of active exploration. Striving to make early college decisions or committing to a career path while in high school may be developmentally inappropriate goals for many adolescents who lack the life experience necessary to make personally meaningful choices. Although teenagers who make these decisions may appear mature to observers and may establish themselves as role models for their peers, their behavior may actually reflect a pseudo-maturity that is more akin to premature foreclosure in certain domains, such as vocational identity.
As we have seen, a certain amount of egocentrism appears to go with the adolescent territory. It is often quite a bit easier for parents and other adults to respond authoritatively, with love and limits, to children when they are young. Something in the nature of their open dependence makes adults feel needed, valued, and important. The task often gets harder during the teenage years, at least in cultures and families that value independence and opportunities for personal expression. Being an adult authority figure in an adolescent’s life may entail some hard times, when love and patience are put to the test. Sometimes adolescents’ self-absorption seems impenetrable. In what may mirror adolescents’ own sense of separateness, adults also can feel isolated.
Watching teenagers struggle with the problems of adolescence is painful, particularly when they behave egocentrically, when they are emotionally volatile, when they act as if they do not want or need our help, or when they actively rebel against the limits we have set. In some especially difficult situations, teenagers have managed to convince the adults around them that they are their equals and that they are entitled to wield much of the power. Some adults are inclined to avoid the grueling job of limit setter and enforcer because they may feel worn down, may have their own personal struggles to contend with, or may simply not know what to do. Sometimes parents take their cues, despite their better judgment, from other teenagers’ more permissive families. Adults who are responsible for adolescents need to be committed to authoritative practices for the long haul. Despite their protestations, the last thing adolescents need is for parents, teachers, or counselors to disengage from them or abdicate their authoritative role. In particular, research has shown that involved and vigilant parenting has been critically important in protecting poor African American youth from potentially dangerous outcomes like delinquency (Brody et al., 2001).
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