Child Development Theory: Adolescence (12-24)
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Self-Identity and Values

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

A mature understanding of oneself and one's emotions implicitly includes some understanding of one's values. Thus, as youths' self-identities evolve, a value system emerges. However, some adolescents do not seek to actively explore their own individual value system; instead, they simply accept the values of their family, community, and culture. But the majority of youth will explore their value system, at least to some degree. This exploratory process may range from a simple questioning of why things are the way they are, to experimentation with a different set of values and beliefs, to outright rejection of generally accepted values and beliefs. This exploratory process can be frustrating for many parents, especially when teens challenge the religious or cultural values held sacred by the family, or when youth directly challenge parental authority.

values When youth experiment with their value system it can take many forms. For example, a formerly shy, quiet, and agreeable youth may suddenly become argumentative and begin to speak out about a great many topics. Some youth may alter their appearance by wearing a different style of clothing, getting a tattoo or body piercing, coloring or styling their hair in unusual ways, or "bending" their gender such as boys wearing cosmetics. They may also change their musical preferences to include music their parents may find objectionable (e.g. lyrics that condone violence), give-up cherished activities such as sports in favor of role-playing games, or attend a Buddhist temple instead of their family's Christian church. As youth experiment with different values and beliefs, their circle of friends may change as well.

Sometimes experimentation goes a step further by testing the limits and boundaries set by their parents, teachers, and other authorities. They may oppose and resist restrictions of any sort, and may intentionally break long-standing rules about curfews, homework, chores, and other responsibilities. During times such as these, it is helpful to recognize that rules and laws are inextricably attached to values. Thus, when teens intentionally challenge rules or laws, they are ultimately challenging the values these rules and laws represent. In a sense, these youth are conducting their own "experiment" to see what happens in the absence of these values. Unfortunately, many of these "experiments" can have dire consequences when youth experiment with sex, tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs.

While some values exploration may be quite painful for youths' families to witness or experience, other values exploration can be a source of great pride for their families. Adolescence is a prime time for youth to explore their cultural heritage and identity. They may want to learn about their family's origins and may ask to be told stories about their ancestors' history. Likewise, they may question what it means to be part of their culture in contemporary society and may question the choices made by earlier generations. For instance, first generation immigrants and survivors of slavery often concealed their own cultural symbols and instead sought to blend into the dominant culture, even conceding passive acceptance of bigotry. Later generations reclaimed their cultural heritage and actively resisted intolerance of cultural diversity in any form. Today's youth may also choose to become extremely active within their culture by educating others about their culture, participating in cultural activities and social groups, and resurrecting abandoned cultural symbols and dress.

Whether they're questioning the ways of the world or experimenting with new activities, youth are trying to assert their independence and individuality through rebellion. They are no longer satisfied simply accepting what adults have told them. Now they want to figure things out for themselves. Yet, they still lack the mental and emotional maturity necessary for making consistently wise decisions. This is why it's exceptionally important for parents of youth in early and middle adolescence to continue to monitor, to discipline, and to guide their children.

 




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