Child Development Theory: Adolescence (12-24)
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Adolescent Social Development

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

Social and emotional development are closely intertwined. Both emotional regulation (remaining in control of emotions) and emotional expression (effective communication about emotions) are necessary ingredients for successful and rewarding interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, advanced cognitive development enhances the quality of interpersonal relationships because it enables youth to better understand the wants, needs, feelings, and motivations of others. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that just as youths' thoughts, emotions, and identities are becoming more complex during adolescence, their social relationships are becoming more complex as well.

teen girls talkingAdolescents will begin to form many different types of relationships, and many of their relationships will become more deeply involved and more emotionally intimate. During children's younger years, their social sphere included their family, a few friends, a couple teachers, and perhaps a coach or other adult mentor. But during adolescence, teens' social networks greatly expand to include many more people, and many different types of relationships. Therefore, adolescent social development involves a dramatic change in the quantity and quality of social relationships.

Younger children will often use the word "friend" to refer to any other child whom they happen to know. However, as children mature and become adolescents they begin to differentiate friends from acquaintances, indicating a more mature understanding of the qualitatively different ways to know another person. Likewise, youth develop the capacity to form closer, more intimate relationships with others. They also begin to form romantic attachments; and, as the desire for a romantic relationship increases, youth may begin to question their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Youth must also learn to balance multiple relationships that compete for their time, energy, and attention. Instead of just a single teacher and coach as in grade school, there are now several teachers and several coaches each with different requirements and priorities. Higher education and gainful employment also require increasingly sophisticated social skills such as the ability to form cooperative relationships with classmates in order to complete group projects or assignments; learning to interact with their boss in an appropriately deferential and respectful manner; or working alongside a diverse set of co-workers in a team-like atmosphere.

New communication technologies enable youth to create and to maintain social bonds in completely different ways: e.g., email, chat rooms, mobile phones with "texting," online social networks such as Facebook® and Twitter™, video communication such as Skype®, and online gaming. These technologies have dramatically expanded the size and complexity of social networks by: 1) changing the way youth relate to one another, 2) increasing the amount of time spent staying connected with one another and, 3) redefining what it mean to be a "friend." In fact, it is quite possible to have a "virtual" friendship without ever having direct face-to-face personal contact. Parents are often amazed and confused by these vastly different means of socializing and connecting with others.


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