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Developmental Psychology > THE ORIGINS OF IDENTITY AND THE SELF-CONCEPT

Social Changes in Adolescence

In Western cultures, adolescence is regarded as a distinct stage of social and emotional development, a transitional period between childhood and adulthood. In the United States, teenagers are considered to be "provisional" adults, mid-way in the process of maturing. In other societies, the transition may be more abrupt; individuals may be considered to be adults (with adult social status and responsibilities) soon after they become sexually mature in puberty.

Adolescence appears to be one of the most turbulent periods of life in the establishment of a self-concept. Early adolescence involves a number of dramatic physical, social, and emotional changes. The hormonal changes beginning in puberty alter our physical appearance, the sound of our voice, and our reproductive status. Often there are major school transitions during this period, during which the student must make new friends, as well as adjust to new teachers and schedules.

Adolescents deliberately "try on" different identities and roles, experimenting with possible selves (Nurmi, Poole, & Kalakoski, 1996). They may spend an enormous amount of time in self-reflection, imagining themselves in different careers or relationships. As noted earlier, adolescents frequently imagine that they are the primary focus of attention for other people as well; this characteristic self-absorption is referred to as adolescent egocentrism . Studies of the self-concept in early adolescence (Rosenberg,1979; 1986) tend to find high levels of self-consciousness, low levels of self-esteem, and generally unstable self-concepts in individuals between 11 and 14 years of age.

The psychologist Erik Erikson has described adolescents as struggling through an identity crisis, a period of searching and social experimentation that often leads to the development of a coherent identity or self-concept (Erikson, 1950; 1968; 1982). As their social world expands, teenagers experience pressures to behave differently in different relationships or social roles. Parents, classmates, close friends, teachers, and romantic partners are all different audiences that may have differing, sometimes incompatible expectations of the adolescent. Amidst all of this role confusion, teenagers may have difficulty in defining their "real" or core identity: their basic values, the goals they believe to be important, their strengths, and their weaknesses (Harter, 1998).

For many teenagers, resolving their identity crisis involves searching outside their families, looking to their peers for social feedback and for models to emulate. In early adolescence, social life is often centered around cliques, small groups of fewer than ten people who are close friends, usually with similar backgrounds, interests, and attitudes. The need for approval from these peer groups can produce powerful pressures to conform, and indeed many adolescents end up adopting the clothing, hair styles, and speech patterns of their friends (Farrell & Danish, 1993). However, the major impact of peer pressure appears to be on short-term, day-to-day behaviors (such as clothing styles or dating), while parents exert relatively more influence in areas such as basic values and long-term goals (Brown and others, 1986; Sebald, 1986).

Adolescence has long been popularly viewed as a time of "storm and stress" during which teenagers experience great emotional turmoil, reject their parents, and are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior. Nearly a hundred years ago, the influential American psychologist G. Stanley Hall pessimistically concluded that for most of us, adolescence was "strewn with wreckage of mind, body, and morals" (1904, p. xiv). Recent research indicates that this is probably an exaggeration: Surveys of adolescents in ten different countries have found that most teenagers report being satisfied with their lives and comfortable with their parents. In the United States, for example, 90% of adolescents agree with the statement that "most of the time I am happy" (Offer and others, 1988).

The risks of some emotional problems (eating disorders and depression, for example) do sharply rise in adolescence. Over the past three decades, there has been a 300% increase in the number of attempted suicides among adolescents, making it the third leading cause of death in that age group (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1998). However, the overall rate of emotional disturbance among teenagers is about the same as among adults (Costello & Angold, 1995; Hauser & Bowlds, 1990). The majority of teenagers manage to navigate through adolescence quite successfully, with little evidence of permanent psychological trauma (Larson & Ham, 1993).

As far as juvenile delinquency or antisocial behavior is concerned, individuals under 21 years of age are responsible for about 30% of criminal arrests in the United States, but for the most part, these involve minor crimes such as shoplifting (United States Department of Justice, 1998). The more serious crimes such as arson or homicide that are committed by adolescents are usually attributed to a relatively small number (perhaps 5%) of repeat offenders, whose antisocial behavior was evident at an early age and will probably persist into adulthood. Most criminal behavior that initially appears in adolescence is not likely to continue into adulthood (Loeber & Stouthamer-Loeber, 1998). Delinquent behavior among adolescents is often associated with extreme family stress and poor parenting (Moffitt and others, 1996)


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