Fact Sheets And Publications
Teen Social and Emotional Development
What Is It?
There are five major social and emotional issues that teens deal with during their adolescent years. These include:
- Establishing an identity. This has been called one of the most important tasks of adolescents. The question of “who am I” is not one that teens think about at a conscious level. Instead, over the course of time, teens begin to integrate the opinions of influential others (e.g. parents, other caring adults, friends, etc.) into their own likes and dislikes. The eventual outcome is people who have a clear sense of their values and beliefs, occupational goals, and relationship expectations. People with secure identities know where they fit (or where they don’t want to fit) in their world.
- Establishing autonomy. Autonomy doesn’t mean becoming completely independent from others. It doesn’t mean teen “rebellion.” Rather than severing ties, establishing autonomy means becoming an independent and self governing person. Autonomous teens have gained the ability to make and follow through with their own decisions, live by their own set of rules about right and wrong, and be less emotionally dependent on parents. Autonomy is necessary if the teen is to become self sufficient in society.
- Establishing intimacy. Many people, including teens, equate intimacy with sex. In fact, intimacy and sex are not the same. Intimacy is usually first learned within the context of same-sex friendships, then expanded in romantic relationships. Intimacy refers to close relationships in which people are open, honest, caring and trusting. Friendships provide the first setting in which young people can practice their social skills with their equals. It is with friends that teens learn how to begin, maintain, and terminate relationships, practice social skills, and become intimate.
- Becoming comfortable with one’s sexuality. The teen years mark the first time that young people are both physically mature enough to reproduce and cognitively advanced enough to think about it. Given this, the teen years are the prime time for the development of sexuality. How teens are educated about and exposed to sexuality will largely determine whether or not they develop a healthy sexual identity. Nearly half of high school seniors report being sexually active. Many experts agree that the mixed messages teens receive about sexuality contribute to problems such as teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
- Achievement. Our society fosters attitudes of competition and success. Because of cognitive advances, the teen years are a time when young people can begin to see the relationship between their current abilities and plans and their future vocational goals. Teens need to figure out what they want to achieve--what they are currently good at and areas in which they are willing to strive for success.
How Do These Changes Affect Teens?
- Teens begin to spend more time with their friends than their families. It is within friendship groups that teens can develop and practice social skills. Teens are quick to point out to each other which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. It is important to remember that even though teens are spending increased amounts of time with their friends, they still tend to conform to parents’ ideals when it comes to decisions about values, education, and long-term plans.
- Teens may begin to keep a journal. Part of achieving identity is thinking about one’s thoughts and feelings. Teens often begin journaling as a way of working through how they feel.
- Teens may become elusive about where they are going or with whom. When asked what they’ll be doing for the evening, teens may reply, “nothing” or “hanging out.” When asked whom they’ll be with, teens reply, “just some friends.”
- Teens may argue more. Teens may question adults’ values and judgments. When teens don’t get their way, they may say, “you just don’t understand!”
What Can You Do?
- Support your child’s involvement in groups or activities in school. Quality after-school programs can help kids improve their social skills. Teens are seeking “fun and friends, voice and choice.“ During their out-of-school time, teens seek places where they can gather with friends and interact with adults on a relatively equal footing, be recognized for their efforts and skills, and make choices about what they will do and how they will do it.
- Realize that teens are tryingto gain a sense of achievement—a sense of beinguniquely good at something. Don’t get frustrated if they frequently change their minds. At the same time, encourage them to stick with a project or activity long enough to establish some skills.
- Establish rituals to marksignificant passages. Few rituals in our modern society mark the passage of teens to adulthood. Have a mother/daughter lunch when the daughter gets her first period. Have a father-son outing when the son begins to shave. Have a family celebration when the teen moves from junior high to high school. Celebrate the teen’s first driver’s license and his or her ability to vote.
- Be aware of who your teen’s friends are and what they are doing. Parental monitoring should not end when youth enter their teen years. Despite teens’ objections, make sure you know who their friends are and where they are going. Meet the parents of your teen’s friends. Provide fun things to do at home to encourage teens to “hang out” at your house so you’ll know where they are and what they are doing.
Pat Tanner Nelson, Ed.D.
Extension Family & Human Development Specialist
Adapted from information prepared by Angela Huebner, Extension Specialist, Family and Child Development, Virginia Tech
¹Quinn, J. When need meets opportunity The Future of Children When School is Out Vol. 9 •
No. 2 http://futureofchildren.org/futureofchildren/publications/docs/09_02_08.pdf
Suggested citation: Huebner, A. Teen social and emotional development in Nelson. P.T. (Ed) (2012) Families Matter! A Series for Parents of School-Age Youth. Newark, DE: Cooperative Extension, University of Delaware.
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