From a psychological standpoint, the central question of adolescence is “Who am I?” In other words, adolescents are searching for their own individual identities. This search eventually results in autonomy – being more independent from the familial group and responsible for his or her own actions. As adolescents take a larger part in the decision-making process of their lives, there is an underlying expectation to be treated more like an adult. The process through which adolescents go to gain autonomy is called individuation. During individuation, teens distinguish their own attitudes and beliefs from those of their parents.
As you might imagine, this can be a tumultuous time for a family. Often familial conflicts occur because parents and their adolescents disagree about the amount as well as the areas of their lives that require supervision. During this time, many families experience a new level of secrecy or half-truths in relation to their teen as teens see secret-keeping as a way to promote privacy and personal space. Also during this process, adolescents begin to compare their opinions and beliefs with others seeing how they are either different or the same. In this way, adolescents develop their own point-of-view.
Ideally, we, as parents, would hope that our teens would come to us in these situations. Frequently, however, when seeking others opinions, teens turn to trusted peers because the advice they seek is of a sensitive nature, things which many teens are not comfortable discussing with their parents. Often, adolescents are looking for validation that what they are experiencing (e.g., body changes during puberty, questions about intimacy, health questions) is normal. They are hoping to find a good listener who won’t judge or jump to conclusions. One national survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that 58% of adolescents surveyed had personal concerns they would not want to discuss with their parents. Another survey by the Kaiser Foundation determined that 82% of teen respondents were concerned about confidentiality when seeking advice or comparing experiences.
Instead, in today’s cyber-connected 24/7 world, many teens turn to the Internet to find a cyber pal with whom to chat and exchange situational anecdotes. Web pages, chat rooms, social networking sites, and virtual bulletin boards all provide ready access to adolescents seeking the validation of their experiences with the added bonus of relative anonymity. With this in mind, Lalita Suzuki and Jerel Calzo of UCLA analyzed the questions posted on two online health bulletin boards – one on teen issues and one on adolescent sexual health. Their analyses indicated that the most frequently posted questions centered upon the adolescents’ changing physical, emotional, and social personas. In examining the types of questions posed on the bulletin boards the researchers found four frequently used categories: 36.9% related to romantic relationships, such as “How do I ask a girl out, or at least talk to her?”; 14.6% dealt with physical health, like “I have a problem with a lot of sweat coming from my underarms.”; and 10.7% addressed body image and/or exercise, for example, “I feel so fat compared to some of my friends who wear such small sizes.” When categorizing the typical responses, the researchers found that 63% were personal opinion, such as “I don’t think weight matters just as long as you’re a healthy person.”; 44% responded with advice, like “You can put an anti-itch lotion very lightly there and see how that helps.”; 37% gave concrete information, for example, “A cold sore is Herpes, and the only thing that will help it go away is a cream.”; and 33% related personal experiences, like “My first kiss was at 18 and it was well worth the wait.” Overall, Suzuki and Calzo found that the bulletin boards were a valuable source of personal opinions, suggestions, informational resources, and emotional support. They caution, however, that in such an anonymous atmosphere, the validity and accuracy of the information provided may be suspect.
As parents, we need to be aware that during early adolescence especially, closeness with parents temporarily decreases and is usually coupled with an increase in familial conflict at the onset of puberty. The ways we were used to parenting our pre-teen(s) no longer work, but often we have no immediate substitute in our parenting toolbox. This typically results in familial power struggles as we seek to find the eventual stasis resulting from newfound autonomy and individuation. “Great,” you say, “so what do we do in the meantime?” Well, for starters, as difficult as it might be, don’t disengage. Do everything you can to be a ready, available, and willing listener, who is non-judgmental. I can’t tell you how many times in the last month I have said to my 13 year-old step-son, “Honey, I still love you; I just don’t like the decision you made.” It is natural and inevitable that our adolescents will seek out their peers to compare their proposed course of action with their friends’ experiences. We just have to be ready to share ours whenever we are given the opportunity.
Suzuki, L., & Calzo, J. (2004). The search for peer advice in cyberspace: An examination of online teen bulletin boards about health and sexuality. Applied Developmental Psychology, 25, 685-698.