Social Development During Adolescence

Learning Outcomes

  • Examine changes in family relationships during adolescence
  • Describe adolescent friendships and dating relationships as they apply to development

Social Changes

Parents

It appears that most teens do not experience adolescent storm and stress to the degree once famously suggested by G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer in the study of adolescent development. Only small numbers of teens have major conflicts with their parents (Steinberg & Morris, 2001), and most disagreements are minor. For example, in a study of over 1,800 parents of adolescents from various cultural and ethnic groups, Barber (1994) found that conflicts occurred over day-to-day issues such as homework, money, curfews, clothing, chores, and friends. These disputes occur because an adolescent’s drive for independence and autonomy conflicts with the parent’s supervision and control. These types of arguments tend to decrease as teens develop (Galambos & Almeida, 1992).

As adolescents work to form their identities, they pull away from their parents, and the peer group becomes very important (Shanahan, McHale, Osgood, & Crouter, 2007). Despite spending less time with their parents, most teens report positive feelings toward them (Moore, Guzman, Hair, Lippman, & Garrett, 2004). Warm and healthy parent-child relationships have been associated with positive child outcomes, such as better grades and fewer school behavior problems, in the United States as well as in other countries (Hair et al., 2005).

Although peers take on greater importance during adolescence, family relationships remain important too. One of the key changes during adolescence involves a renegotiation of parent–child relationships. As adolescents strive for more independence and autonomy during this time, different aspects of parenting become more salient. For example, parents’ distal supervision and monitoring become more important as adolescents spend more time away from parents and in the presence of peers. Parental monitoring encompasses a wide range of behaviors such as parents’ attempts to set rules and know their adolescents’ friends, activities, and whereabouts, in addition to adolescents’ willingness to disclose information to their parents. (Stattin & Kerr, 2000)[1] Psychological control, which involves manipulation and intrusion into adolescents’ emotional and cognitive world through invalidating adolescents’ feelings and pressuring them to think in particular ways is another aspect of parenting that becomes more salient during adolescence and is related to more problematic adolescent adjustment.[2]

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Peers

Two groups of teenage girls, most of whom are wearing head scarves, sitting and chatting on some steps.

Figure 1. Crowds refer to different collections of people, like the “theater kids” or the “environmentalists.” In a way, they are kind of like clothing brands that label the people associated with that crowd. [Image: Garry Knight]

As children become adolescents, they usually begin spending more time with their peers and less time with their families, and these peer interactions are increasingly unsupervised by adults. Children’s notions of friendship often focus on shared activities, whereas adolescents’ notions of friendship increasingly focus on intimate exchanges of thoughts and feelings.

During adolescence, peer groups evolve from primarily single-sex to mixed-sex. Adolescents within a peer group tend to be similar to one another in behavior and attitudes, which has been explained as being a function of homophily (adolescents who are similar to one another choose to spend time together in a “birds of a feather flock together” way) and influence (adolescents who spend time together shape each other’s behavior and attitudes). Peer pressure is usually depicted as peers pushing a teenager to do something that adults disapprove of, such as breaking laws or using drugs. One of the most widely studied aspects of adolescent peer influence is known as deviant peer contagion (Dishion & Tipsord, 2011)[3], which is the process by which peers reinforce problem behavior by laughing or showing other signs of approval that then increase the likelihood of future problem behavior. Although deviant peer contagion is more extreme, regular peer pressure is not always harmful. Peers can serve both positive and negative functions during adolescence. Negative peer pressure can lead adolescents to make riskier decisions or engage in more problematic behavior than they would alone or in the presence of their family. For example, adolescents are much more likely to drink alcohol, use drugs, and commit crimes when they are with their friends than when they are alone or with their family. However, peers also serve as an important source of social support and companionship during adolescence, and adolescents with positive peer relationships are happier and better adjusted than those who are socially isolated or who have conflictual peer relationships.

Crowds are an emerging level of peer relationships in adolescence. In contrast to friendships (which are reciprocal dyadic relationships) and cliques (which refer to groups of individuals who interact frequently), crowds are characterized more by shared reputations or images than actual interactions (Brown & Larson, 2009)[4] These crowds reflect different prototypic identities (such as jocks or brains) and are often linked with adolescents’ social status and peers’ perceptions of their values or behaviors.

Link to Learning: Gender Roles

It is interesting to note that even in today’s progressive social climate and with advances in gender equality, there are still considerable differences in the ways teenage boys and girls spend their time, as shown in 2019 research by the Pew Research Center. During the school year, teenage boys spend an average of 24 minutes a day helping around the house and 12 minutes preparing food, while teenage girls spend an average of 38 minutes a day helping around the house and 29 minutes preparing food. Both boys and girls spend more equal amounts of time on maintenance chores and lawn care. Girls also spend an average of 23 more minutes on grooming each day, which is perhaps explained by the fact that 35% of girls say they feel pressure to look good (compared with 23% of boys).[5] Read the article “The Way U.S. Teens Spend Their Time is Changing, but Differences Between Boys and Girls Persist” to learn more.

Romantic relationships

Adolescence is the developmental period during which romantic relationships typically first emerge. Initially, same-sex peer groups that were common during childhood expand into mixed-sex peer groups that are more characteristic of adolescence. Romantic relationships often form in the context of these mixed-sex peer groups (Connolly, Furman, & Konarski, 2000)[6] Although romantic relationships during adolescence are often short-lived rather than long-term committed partnerships, their importance should not be minimized. Adolescents spend a great deal of time focused on romantic relationships, and their positive and negative emotions are more tied to romantic relationships (or lack thereof) than to friendships, family relationships, or school (Furman & Shaffer, 2003)[7] Romantic relationships contribute to adolescents’ identity formation, changes in family and peer relationships, and adolescents’ emotional and behavioral adjustment.

Furthermore, romantic relationships are centrally connected to adolescents’ emerging sexuality. Parents, policymakers, and researchers have devoted a great deal of attention to adolescents’ sexuality, in large part because of concerns related to sexual intercourse, contraception, and preventing teen pregnancies. However, sexuality involves more than this narrow focus. Sexual orientation refers to whether a person is sexually and romantically attracted to others of the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes. For example, adolescence is often when individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender come to perceive themselves as such (Russell, Clarke, & Clary, 2009)[8] Thus, romantic relationships are a domain in which adolescents experiment with new behaviors and identities.

Many adolescents may choose to come out during this period of their life once an identity has been formed; many others may go through a period of questioning or denial, which can include experimentation with both homosexual and heterosexual experiences. A study of 194 lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths under the age of 21 found that having an awareness of one’s sexual orientation occurred, on average, around age 10, but the process of coming out to peers and adults occurred around age 16 and 17, respectively. Coming to terms with and creating a positive LGBT identity can be difficult for some youth for a variety of reasons. Peer pressure is a large factor when youth who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity are surrounded by heteronormative peers and can cause great distress due to a feeling of being different from everyone else. While coming out can also foster better psychological adjustment, the risks associated are real. Indeed, coming out in the midst of a heteronormative peer environment often comes with the risk of ostracism, hurtful jokes, and even violence. Because of this, statistically the suicide rate amongst LGBT adolescents is up to four times higher than that of their heterosexual peers due to bullying and rejection from peers or family members.

Diversity

Adolescent development does not necessarily follow the same pathway for all individuals. Certain features of adolescence, particularly with respect to biological changes associated with puberty and cognitive changes associated with brain development, are relatively universal. But other features of adolescence depend largely on circumstances that are more environmentally variable. For example, adolescents growing up in one country might have different opportunities for risk taking than adolescents in another country, and supports and sanctions for different behaviors in adolescence depend on laws and values that might be specific to where adolescents live. Likewise, different cultural norms regarding family and peer relationships shape adolescents’ experiences in these domains. For example, in some countries, adolescents’ parents are expected to retain control over major decisions, whereas in other countries, adolescents are expected to begin sharing in or taking control of decision making.

Even within the same country, adolescents’ gender, ethnicity, immigrant status, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and personality can shape both how adolescents behave and how others respond to them, creating diverse developmental contexts for different adolescents. For example, early puberty (that occurs before most other peers have experienced puberty) appears to be associated with worse outcomes for girls than boys, likely in part because girls who enter puberty early tend to associate with older boys, which in turn is associated with early sexual behavior and substance use. For adolescents who are ethnic or sexual minorities, discrimination sometimes presents a set of challenges that non-minorities do not face.

Finally, genetic variations contribute an additional source of diversity in adolescence. Current approaches emphasize gene X environment interactions, which often follow a differential susceptibility model (Belsky & Pluess, 2009)[9] That is, particular genetic variations are considered riskier than others, but genetic variations also can make adolescents more or less susceptible to environmental factors. For example, the association between the CHRM2 genotype and adolescent externalizing behavior (aggression and delinquency) has been found in adolescents whose parents are low in monitoring behaviors (Dick et al., 2011)[10] Thus, it is important to bear in mind that individual differences play an important role in adolescent development.

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Glossary

clique:
used to describe a group of persons who interact with each other more regularly and intensely than others in the same setting. Cliques are distinguished from “crowds” in that their members interact with one another
crowds:
large groups of adolescents defined by their shared image and reputation
homophily:
a tendency of individuals to form links disproportionately with others like themselves
deviant peer contagion:
process by which peers reinforce problem behavior by laughing or showing other signs of approval that then increase the likelihood of future problem behavior
peer pressure:
encouragement to conform to one’s friends or contemporaries in behavior, dress, and attitude; usually considered a negative force, as when adolescent peers encourage one another to defy adult authority
sexual orientation:
a term that refers to whether a person is sexually and romantically attracted to others of the same sex, the opposite sex, or both sexes

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  1. Stattin, H., & Kerr, M. (2000). Parental monitoring: A reinterpretation. Child Development, 71, 1072–1085.
  2. Barber, B. K. (1996). Parental psychological control: Revisiting a neglected construct. Child Development, 67, 3296–3319.
  3. Dishion, T. J., & Tipsord, J. M. (2011). Peer contagion in child and adolescent social and emotional development. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 189–214.
  4. Brown, B. B., & Larson, J. (2009). Peer relationships in adolescence. In R. M. Lerner & L. Steinberg (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent psychology (pp. 74–103). New York, NY: Wiley.
  5. Livingston, Gretchen (February 2018). The way U.S. teens spend their time is changing, but differences between boys and girls persist. Pew Research Center.
  6. Connolly, J., Furman, W., & Konarski, R. (2000). The role of peers in the emergence of heterosexual romantic relationships in adolescence. Child Development, 71, 1395–1408.
  7. Furman, W., & Shaffer, L. (2003). The role of romantic relationships in adolescent development. In P. Florsheim (Ed.), Adolescent romantic relations and sexual behavior: Theory, research, and practical implications (pp. 3–22). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  8. Russell, S. T., Clarke, T. J., & Clary, J. (2009). Are teens “post-gay”? Contemporary adolescents’ sexual identity labels. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38, 884–890.
  9. Belsky, J., & Pluess, M. (2009). Beyond diathesis-stress: Differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Psychological Bulletin, 135, 885–908.
  10. Dick, D. M., Meyers, J. L., Latendresse, S. J., Creemers, H. E., Lansford, J. E., … Huizink, A. C. (2011). CHRM2, parental monitoring, and adolescent externalizing behavior: Evidence for gene-environment interaction. Psychological Science, 22, 481–489.