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Social Development in Adolescence

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

Some of the most important changes that occur during adolescence involve the further development of the self-concept and the development of new attachments. Whereas young children are most strongly attached to their parents, the important attachments of adolescents move increasingly away from parents and increasingly toward peers (Harris, 1998). 1 As a result, parents’ influence diminishes at this stage.

According to Erikson (Table 6.1), the main social task of the adolescent is the search for a unique identity—the ability to answer the question, “Who am I?” In the search for identity, the adolescent may experience r ole confusion in which he or she is balancing or choosing among identities, taking on negative or undesirable identities, or temporarily giving up looking for an identity altogether if things are not going well.

One approach to assessing identity development was proposed by James Marcia (1980). 2 In his approach, adolescents are asked questions regarding their exploration of a nd commitment to issues related to occupation, politics, religion, and sexual behavior. The responses to the questions allow the researchers to classify the adolescent into one of four identity categories (see Table 6.4).

Table 6.4 James Marcia’s Stages of Identity Development

Identity-diffusion status

The individual does not have firm commitments regarding the issues in question and is not making progress toward them.

Foreclosure status

The individual has not engaged in any identity experimentation and has established an identity based on the choices or values of others.

Moratorium status

The individual is exploring various choices but has not yet made a clear commitment to any of them.

Identity-achievement status

The individual has attained a coherent and committed identity based on personal decisions.


Studies assessing how teens pass through Marcia’s stages show that, although most teens eventually succeed in developing a stable identity, the path to it is not always easy and there are many routes that can be taken. Some teens may simply adopt the beliefs of their parents or the first role that is offered to them, perhaps at the expense of searching for other, more promising possibilities (foreclosure status). Other teens may spend years trying on different possible identities (moratorium status) before finally choosing one.

To help them work through the process of developing an identity, teenagers may well try out different identities in different social situations. They may maintain one identity at home and a different type of persona when they are with their peers. Eventually, most teenagers do integrate the different possibilities into a single self-concept and a comfortable sense of identity (identity- achievement status).

For teenagers, the peer group provides valuable information about the self-concept. For instance, in response to the question “What were you like as a teenager? (e.g., cool, nerdy, awkward?),” posed on the website Answerbag, one teenager replied in this way:

I’m still a teenager now, but from 8th–9th gradeIdidnt really know what Iwanted at all. Iwas smart, so Ihung out withthenerdy kids. Istill do; my friends mean theworld to me. But in the middleof 8th I started hanging out with whom youmay call thecool” kids…and Ialso hung out with somestoners, just for variety. Ipierced various parts of mybodyand kept mygrades up. Now, I’m just trying to find who I am. I’m even doing my sophomore year in China so I can get a betteview of what I want. (Answerbag, 2007) 3

Responses like this one demonstrate the extent to which adolescents are developing their self- concepts and self-identities and how they rely on peers to help them do that. The writer here is trying out several (perhaps conflicting) identities, and the identities any teen experiments with are defined by the group the person chooses to be a part of. The friendship groups (cliques, crowds, or gangs) that are such an important part of the adolescent experience allow the young adult to try out different identities, and these groups provide a sense of belonging and acceptance (Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker, 2006). 4 A big part of what the adolescent is learning is social identity, thepart of theself-concept that is derived from one’s group memberships. Adolescents define their social identities according to how they are similar to and differ from others, finding meaning in the sports, religious, school, gender, and ethnic categories they belong to.