Children's Health and Wellness

Relationship Development

Relationship development that occurs during adolescence

Changes in adolescent physical and cognitive development are also accompanied by major changes in an adolescent's relationships with others, including family members and friends. Family relationships are often reorganized with the onset of puberty, the desire for increased autonomy, and increased emotional distance between teens and their parents. Adolescent attention often shifts to a more intense focus on social interactions and friendships expanding from same-sex friends to same-sex groups of friends to heterosexual groups of friends. Sexual maturity marks the need to reorganize friendships again to include an increased interest in dating and sexual relationships.

Developmental changes in relationship with self

It is also during adolescence, with a focus on changing relationships with others, that a new understanding of one's self emerges. This may include changes in the following self-concepts:

  • Independence. Independence is defined as making decisions for one's self and acting on the basis of one's own thought processes, judgment, and decision-making. Part of the developmental process for adolescents is to learn to work out one's own problems independently. With increasing cognitive and intuitive abilities, adolescents begin to face new responsibilities and to enjoy independent thoughts and actions. Adolescents begin to have thoughts and fantasies about their future and adult life (for example, college or job training, work, and marriage).

  • Identity. Identity is defined as a sense of self or self-knowledge about one's characteristics, or personality. One of the fundamental tasks of adolescence is to achieve a sense of a personal identity and a secure sense of self. As an adolescent gains comfort with, and acceptance of, a more mature physical body, learns to use his or her own judgment, learns to make decisions independently, and addresses his or her own problems, he or she begins to develop a concept of himself or herself as an individual, and thus an identity. Difficulty in developing a clear concept of self or identity occurs when an adolescent is unable to resolve struggles about who he or she is as a physical, sexual, and independent person.

  • Self-esteem. Self-esteem is defined as the feelings one has about one's self. Self-esteem is determined by answering the question "How much do I like myself?" With the onset of adolescence, a decrease in self-esteem is somewhat common--based on the many body changes occurring, new thoughts being developed, and new ways of thinking about things. During adolescence, teens become more thoughtful about who they are and who they want to be. They notice differences in the way they act and the way they think they should act. Once teens start thinking about their actions and characteristics, they are confronted with how they judge themselves. Many adolescents tend to place importance on attractiveness. When teens do not perceive themselves as attractive, it often causes poor self-esteem. Typically, self-esteem increases during late adolescence as teens develop a better sense of who they are.

Developmental changes in peer relationships

The amount of time spent with friends increases during the course of adolescence. Most often, teenagers enjoy the time they spend with their friends more than other activities. They report feeling more understood and accepted by their friends. Less and less time is spent with parents and other family members.

Close friendships tend to develop between teens that are more similar in nature, interest, social class, and ethnic backgrounds, than younger age friendships. While childhood friendships tend to be based on common activities, adolescent friendships expand to include similarities in attitudes, values, as well as shared activities. Teen friendships also tend to be based on similarities in the level of involvement in academic and educational interest. Especially for girls, close, intimate, self-disclosing conversations with friends help to explore identities and define one's sense of self. Conversations within these important friendships also assist adolescents in exploring their sexuality and how they feel about it. The friendships of adolescent boys tend to be less intimate than those of girls. Boys are more prone to form an alliance with a group of friends who validate each other's worth through actions and deeds rather than interpersonal disclosure.

Developmental changes in male-female relationships

The adolescent transition to male-female and sexual relationships is influenced by sexual interest and by social and cultural influences and expectations. Social and cultural expectations and behaviors in male-female or sexual relationships are learned from observations and practice. During adolescence, developmental tasks include struggles to gain control over sexual and aggressive urges, and discovering potential or actual love relationships. Sexual behaviors during adolescence may include impulsive behavior, a wide range of experimental interactions of mutual exploring, and eventually intercourse. Biological differences, and differences in the socialization of males and females, set the stage for males and females to have different expectations of sexual and love relationships that may influence sexual experiences and may also have consequences for later sexual behavior and partnerships. Ultimately, achievement of a mutually satisfying sexual partnership within a love relationship may be established.

Developmental changes in family relationships

One of the developmental tasks of adolescence is to achieve separation from one's family as one emerges into an independent young adult. A part of this process is coming to terms with specific feelings about one's family. During adolescence, teens begin to realize that their parents and significant authority figures do not know everything or have solutions to all types of struggles. Some teenage rebellion against parents is common and normal. With the onset of puberty, adolescent females tend to have more disagreements with their mothers. Adolescent males, especially those who mature early, also tend to have more disagreements with their mothers than with their fathers. While over time disagreements often decrease, adolescent relationships with mothers tend to change more than adolescent relationships with fathers. As adolescents become more independent from their parents, they are more likely to turn to their peers for advice.

Online Source: Parenting: The Teen Years, American Psychological Associationhttp://www.apa.org/helpcenter/teen-years.aspx
Online Source: The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction, National Institute of Mental Healthhttp://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/the-teen-brain-still-under-construction/index.shtml
Online Editor: Geller, Arlene
Online Medical Reviewer: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: newMentor board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 6/27/2013
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