chapter 12 Emotional and Social Development in Adolescence


As adolescents spend less time with family members, peer groups become more tightly knit into cliques. Mixed-sex cliques prepare teenagers for dating by providing models of how to interact and opportunities to do so without having to be intimate.

chapter outline

·   Erikson’s Theory: Identity versus Role Confusion

·   Self-Understanding

·   Changes in Self-Concept

·   Changes in Self-Esteem

·   Paths to Identity

·   Identity Status and Psychological Well-Being

·   Factors Affecting Identity Development

· ■  CULTURAL INFLUENCES  Identity Development Among Ethnic Minority Adolescents

·   Moral Development

·   Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

·   Are There Sex Differences in Moral Reasoning?

·   Coordinating Moral, Social-Conventional, and Personal Concerns

·   Influences on Moral Reasoning

·   Moral Reasoning and Behavior

·   Religious Involvement and Moral Development

·   Further Challenges to Kohlberg’s Theory

· ■  SOCIAL ISSUES: EDUCATION  Development of Civic Engagement

·   Gender Typing

·   The family

·   Parent–Child Relationships

·   Family Circumstances

·   Siblings

·   Peer Relations

·   Friendships

·   Cliques and Crowds

·   Dating

·   Problems of Development

·   Depression

·   Suicide

·   Delinquency

· ■  BIOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENT  Two Routes to Adolescent Delinquency


Louis sat on the grassy hillside overlooking the high school, waiting for his best friend, Darryl, to arrive from his fourth-period class. The two boys often had lunch together. Watching as hundreds of students poured onto the school grounds, Louis reflected on what he had learned in government class that day. “suppose I had been born in the People’s Republic of China. I’d be sitting here, speaking a different language, being called by a different name, and thinking about the world in different ways. Wow,”Louis pondered. “I am who I am through some quirk of fate.”

Louis awoke from his thoughts with a start to see Darryl standing in front of him. “Hey, dreamer! I’ve been shouting and waving from the bottom of the hill for five minutes. How come you’re so spaced out lately, Louis?”

“Oh, just wondering about stuff—what I want, what I believe in. My older brother Jules—I envy him. He seems to know more about where he’s going. I’m up in the air about it. You ever feel that way?”

“Yeah, a lot,”Darryl admitted, looking at Louis seriously. “I wonder, what am I really like? Who will I become?”

Louis and Darryl’s introspective remarks are signs of a major reorganization of the self at adolescence: the development of identity. Both young people are attempting to formulate who they are—their personal values and the directions they will pursue in life.

We begin this chapter with Erikson’s account of identity development and the research it has stimulated on teenagers’ thoughts and feelings about themselves. The quest for identity extends to many aspects of development. We will see how a sense of cultural belonging, moral understanding, and masculine and feminine self-images are refined during adolescence. And as parent–child relationships are revised and young people become increasingly independent of the family, friendships and peer networks become crucial contexts for bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood. Our chapter concludes with a discussion of several serious adjustment problems of adolescence: depression, suicide, and delinquency.


image4 Erikson’s Theory: Identity versus Role Confusion

Erikson ( 1950  1968 ) was the first to recognize  identity  as the major personality achievement of adolescence and as a crucial step toward becoming a productive, content adult. Constructing an identity involves defining who you are, what you value, and the directions you choose to pursue in life. One expert described it as an explicit theory of oneself as a rational agent—one who acts on the basis of reason, takes responsibility for those actions, and can explain them (Moshman,  2005 ). This search for what is true and real about the self drives many choices—vocation, interpersonal relationships, community involvement, ethnic-group membership, and expression of one’s sexual orientation, as well as moral, political, and religious ideals.

Although the seeds of identity formation are planted early, not until late adolescence and early adulthood do young people become absorbed in this task. According to Erikson, in complex societies, teenagers experience an identity crisis—a temporary period of distress as they experiment with alternatives before settling on values and goals. They go through a process of inner soul-searching, sifting through characteristics that defined the self in childhood and combining them with emerging traits, capacities, and commitments. Then they mold these into a solid inner core that provides a mature identity—a sense of self-continuity as they move through various roles in daily life. Once formed, identity continues to be refined in adulthood as people reevaluate earlier commitments and choices.

Erikson called the psychological conflict of adolescence  identity versus role confusion . If young people’s earlier conflicts were resolved negatively or if society limits their choices to ones that do not match their abilities and desires, they may appear shallow, directionless, and unprepared for the challenges of adulthood.

Current theorists agree with Erikson that questioning of values, plans, and priorities is necessary for a mature identity, but they no longer describe this process as a “crisis” (Côté,  2009 ; Kroger,  2007 ). For most young people, identity development is not traumatic and disturbing but, rather, a process of explorationfollowed by commitment. As young people try out life possibilities, they gather important information about themselves and their environment and move toward making enduring decisions. In doing so, they forge an organized self-structure (Arnett,  2000  2006 ; Moshman,  2005 ). In the following sections, we will see that adolescents go about the task of defining the self in ways that closely match Erikson’s description.

image5 Self-Understanding

During adolescence, the young person’s vision of the self becomes more complex, well-organized, and consistent. Compared with younger children, adolescents engage in evaluations of an increasing variety of aspects of the self. Over time, they construct a balanced, integrated representation of their strengths and limitations (Harter,  2003  2006 ). Changes in self-concept and self-esteem set the stage for developing a unified personal identity.

Changes in Self-Concept

Recall that by the end of middle childhood, children can describe themselves in terms of personality traits. In early adolescence, they unify separate traits (“smart”and “curious”) into more abstract descriptors (“Intelligent”). But these generalizations are not interconnected and are often contradictory. For example, 12- to 14-year-olds might mention opposing traits—“Intelligent”and “dork,”“extrovert”and “Introvert.”These disparities result from the expansion of adolescents’ social world, which creates pressure to display different selves in different relationships. As adolescents’ awareness of these inconsistencies grows, they frequently agonize over “which is the real me” (Harter,  1998  2003  2006 ).

From middle to late adolescence, cognitive changes enable teenagers to combine their traits into an organized system. Their use of qualifiers (“I have a fairly quick temper,”“I’m not thoroughly honest”) reveals an increasing awareness that psychological qualities can vary from one situation to the next. Older adolescents also add integrating principles that make sense of formerly troublesome contradictions. “I’m very adaptable,”said one young person. “When I’m around my friends, who think what I say is important, I’m talkative; but around my family I’m quiet because they’re never interested enough to really listen to me”(Damon,  1990 , p. 88).

Compared with school-age children, teenagers place more emphasis on social virtues, such as being friendly, considerate, kind, and cooperative—traits that reflect adolescents’ increasing concern with being viewed positively by others. Among older adolescents, personal and moral values also appear as key themes. As young people revise their views of themselves to include enduring beliefs and plans, they move toward the unity of self that is central to identity development.

Changes in Self-Esteem

Self-esteem, the evaluative side of self-concept, continues to differentiate in adolescence. Teenagers add several new dimensions of self-evaluation—close friendship, romantic appeal, and job competence—to those of middle childhood (see  Chapter 10  pages 330 331 ) (Harter,  1999  2003  2006 ).

Level of self-esteem also changes. Though some adolescents experience temporary or persisting declines after school transitions (see Chapter 11  page 391 ), self-esteem rises for most young people, who report feeling especially good about their peer relationships and athletic capabilities (Impett et al.,  2008 ; Twenge & Campbell,  2001 ). Teenagers often assert that they have become more mature, capable, personable, and attractive than in the past. In longitudinal research on a nationally representative sample of U.S. youths, an increasing sense of mastery—feeling competent and in control of one’s life—strongly predicted this age-related rise in self-esteem (Erol & Orth,  2011 ).


During adolescence, self-esteem rises for most young people, who feel especially good about their peer relationships and athletic capabilities.

As in middle childhood, individuals with mostly favorable self-esteem profiles tend to be well-adjusted, sociable, and conscientious, whereas low self-esteem in all areas is linked to adjustment difficulties. But certain self-esteem factors are more strongly related to adjustment. Teenagers who feel highly dissatisfied with parental relationships often are aggressive and antisocial. Those with poor academic self-esteem tend to be anxious and unfocused, and those with negative peer relationships are likely to be anxious and depressed (Marsh, Parada, & Ayotte,  2004 ; Rudolph, Caldwell, & Conley,  2005 ).

In adolescence, authoritative parenting continues to predict high self-esteem, as does encouragement from teachers (Lindsey et al., 2008 ; McKinney, Donnelly, & Renk,  2008 ; Wilkinson,  2004 ). In contrast, teenagers whose parents are critical and insulting have unstable and generally low self-esteem (Kernis,  2002 ). Feedback that is negative, inconsistent, or not contingent on performance triggers, at best, uncertainty about the self’s capacities and, at worst, a sense of being incompetent and unloved. Teenagers who experience such parenting tend to rely only on peers, not on adults, to affirm their self-esteem—a risk factor for adjustment difficulties (DuBois et al.,  1999  2002 ).

Paths to Identity

Adolescents’ well-organized self-descriptions and differentiated sense of self-esteem provide the cognitive foundation for forming an identity. Using a clinical interviewing procedure devised by James Marcia (1980) or briefer questionnaire measures, researchers commonly evaluate progress in identity development on two key criteria derived from Erikson’s theory: exploration and commitment. Their various combinations yield four identity statuses, summarized in  Table 12.1  identity achievement ,commitment to values, beliefs, and goals following a period of exploration;  identity moratorium ,exploration without having reached commitment;  identity foreclosure,  commitment in the absence of exploration; and  identity diffusion,  an apathetic state characterized by lack of both exploration and commitment.

TABLE 12.1 The Four Identity Statuses

Identity achievement Having already explored alternatives, identity-achieved individuals are committed to a clearly formulated set of self-chosen values and goals. They feel a sense of psychological well-being, of sameness through time, and of knowing where they are going. When asked how willing she would be to give up going into her chosen occupation if something better came along, aLuren responded, “Well, I might, but I doubt it. I’ve thought long and hard about law as a career. I’m pretty certain it’s for me.”
Identity moratorium Moratorium means “delay or holding pattern.”These individuals have not yet made definite commitments. They are in the process of exploring—gathering information and trying out activities, with the desire to find values and goals to guide their lives. When asked whether he had ever had doubts about his religious beliefs, Ramón said, “Yes, I guess I’m going through that right now. I just don’t see how there can be a God and yet so much evil in the world.”
Identity foreclosure Identity-foreclosed individuals have committed themselves to values and goals without exploring alternatives. They accept a ready-made identity chosen for them by authority figures—usually parents but sometimes teachers, religious leaders, or romantic partners. When asked if she had ever reconsidered her political beliefs, Emily answered, “No, not really, our family is pretty much in agreement on these things.”
Identity diffusion Identity-diffused individuals lack clear direction. They are not committed to values and goals, nor are they actively trying to reach them. They may never have explored alternatives or may have found the task too threatening and overwhelming. When asked about his attitude toward nontraditional gender roles, Justin responded, “Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t make much difference to me. I can take it or leave it.”

Identity development follows many paths. Some young people remain in one status, whereas others experience many status transitions. And the pattern often varies across identity domains, such as sexual orientation, vocation, and religious and political values. Most young people change from “lower”statuses (foreclosure or diffusion) to higher ones (moratorium or achievement) between their mid-teens and mid-twenties, but as many remain stable, and some move in the reverse direction (Kroger,  2007 ; Kroger, Martinussen, & Marcia,  2010 ; Meeus et al.,  2012 ).

Because attending college provides opportunities to explore values, career options, and lifestyles, college students make more identity progress than they did in high school (Klimstra et al.,  2010 ; Montgomery & Côté,  2003 ). After college, they often sample a broad range of life experiences before choosing a life course. Those who go to work immediately after high school graduation often settle on a self-definition earlier. But if non-college-bound youths encounter obstacles to realizing their occupational goals because of lack of training or vocational choices, they are at risk for identity foreclosure or diffusion (Cohen et al.,  2003 ; Eccles et al.,  2003 ).

At one time, researchers thought that adolescent girls postponed establishing an identity, focusing instead on Erikson’s next stage, intimacy development. Some girls do show more sophisticated reasoning than boys in identity domains related to intimacy, such as sexuality and family versus career priorities. Otherwise, adolescents of both sexes typically make progress on identity concerns before experiencing genuine intimacy in relationships (Berman et al.,  2006 ; Kroger,  2007 ).

Identity Status and Psychological Well-Being

A wealth of research verifies that both identity achievement and moratorium are psychologically healthy routes to a mature self-definition. Long-term foreclosure and diffusion, in contrast, are maladaptive.

Adolescents in moratorium resemble identity-achieved individuals in using an active, information-gathering cognitive style to make personal decisions and solve problems: They seek out relevant information, evaluate it carefully, and critically reflect on and revise their views (Berzonsky,  2003  2011 ). Young people who are identity-achieved or exploring have higher self-esteem, feel more in control of their lives, are more likely to view school and work as feasible avenues for realizing their aspirations, and are more advanced in moral reasoning (Berzonsky et al.,  2011 ; Kroger,  2007 ; Serafini & Adams,  2002 ).

Adolescents stuck in either foreclosure or diffusion are passive in the face of identity concerns and have adjustment difficulties. Foreclosed individuals display a dogmatic, inflexible cognitive style, internalizing the values and beliefs of parents and others without deliberate evaluation and resisting information that threatens their position (Berzonsky & Kuk,  2000 ; Berzonsky et al.,  2011 ). Most fear rejection by people on whom they depend for affection and self-esteem. A few foreclosed teenagers who are alienated from their families and society may join cults or other extremist groups, uncritically adopting a way of life different from their past.

Long-term diffused individuals are the least mature in identity development. They typically use a diffuse-avoidant cognitive style in which they avoid dealing with personal decisions and problems and, instead, allow current situational pressures to dictate their reactions (Berzonsky & Kuk,  2000 ; Krettenauer,  2005 ). Taking an “I don’t care”attitude, they entrust themselves to luck or fate, tend to go along with the crowd, and are focused on short-term personal pleasures. As a result, they experience time management and academic difficulties and, of all young people, are most likely to commit antisocial acts and to use and abuse drugs (Berzonsky et al.,  2011 ; Schwartz et al.,  2005 ). Often at the heart of their apathy is a sense of hopelessness about the future.

Factors Affecting Identity Development

Adolescent identity formation begins a lifelong, dynamic process in which a change in either the individual or the context opens up the possibility of reformulating identity (Kunnen & Bosma,  2003 ). A wide variety of factors influence identity development.

Identity status, as we have just seen, is both cause and consequence of personality characteristics. Adolescents who assume that absolute truth is always attainable tend to be foreclosed, while those who doubt that they will ever feel certain about anything are more often identity-diffused. Young people who appreciate that they can use rational criteria to choose among alternatives are likely to be in a state of moratorium or identity achievement (Berzonsky & Kuk,  2000 ; Berzonsky et al.,  2011 ).


An internship in a veterinary office enables this teenager to explore a real-world career related to her love of animals, thereby fostering identity development.

Teenagers’ identity development is enhanced when their families serve as a “secure base”from which they can confidently move out into the wider world. Adolescents who feel attached to their parents but also free to voice their own opinions tend to be in a state of moratorium or identity achievement (Berzonsky,  2004 ; Luyckx, Goossens, & Soenens,  2006 ; Schwartz et al.,  2005 ). Foreclosed teenagers usually have close bonds with parents but lack opportunities for healthy separation. And diffused young people report the lowest levels of parental support and of warm, open communication (Reis & Youniss,  2004 ; Zimmerman & Becker-Stoll,  2002 ).

Applying What We Know Supporting Healthy Identity Development

Strategy Explanation
Engage in warm, open communication. Provides both emotional support and freedom to explore values and goals.
Initiate discussions that promote high-level thinking at home and at school. Encourages rational and deliberate selection among beliefs and values.
Provide opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities and vocational training programs. Permits young people to explore the real world of adult work.
Provide opportunities to talk with adults and peers who have worked through identity questions. Offers models of identity achievement and advice on how to resolve identity concerns.
Provide opportunities to explore ethnic heritage and learn about other cultures in an atmosphere of respect. Fosters identity achievement in all areas and ethnic tolerance, which supports the identity explorations of others.

Interaction with diverse peers through school and community activities encourages adolescents to explore values and role possibilities (Barber et al.,  2005 ). And close friends, like parents, can act as a secure base, providing emotional support, assistance, and models of identity development. In one study, 15-year-olds with warm, trusting peer ties were more involved in exploring relationship issues—for example, thinking about what they valued in close friends and in a life partner (Meeus, Oosterwegel, & Vollebergh,  2002 ). In another study, young people’s attachment to friends predicted progress in choosing a career (Felsman & Blustein,  1999 ).

Identity development also depends on schools and communities that offer rich and varied opportunities for exploration. Supportive experiences include classrooms that promote high-level thinking, teachers and counselors who encourage low-SES students to go to college, extracurricular activities that offer teenagers responsible roles consistent with their interests and talents, and vocational training that immerses adolescents in the real world of adult work (Coatsworth et al.,  2005 ; Hardy et al.,  2011 ; McIntosh, Metz, & Youniss, 2005 ).

Culture strongly influences an aspect of mature identity not captured by the identity-status approach: constructing a sense of self-continuity despite major personal changes. In one study, researchers asked Native Canadian and cultural-majority 12- to 20-year-olds to describe themselves in the past and in the present and then to justify why they regarded themselves as the same continuous person (Lalonde & Chandler,  2005 ). Most cultural-majority adolescents used an individualistic approach: They described an enduring personal essence, a core self that remained the same despite change. In contrast, Native Canadian youths took an interdependent approach that emphasized a constantly transforming self, resulting from new roles and relationships. They typically constructed a coherent narrative in which they linked together various time slices of their life with a thread that explained how they had changed in meaningful ways.

Finally, societal forces also are responsible for the special challenges faced by gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths (see  Chapter 11 ) and by ethnic minority adolescents in forming a secure identity (see the  Cultural Influences  box on  page 406 ). Applying What We Know above summarizes ways that adults can support adolescents in their quest for identity.


REVIEW List personal and contextual factors that promote identity development.

CONNECT Explain the close link between adolescent identity development and cognitive processes.

APPLY Return to the conversation between Louis and Darryl in the opening of this chapter. Which identity status best characterizes each of the two boys, and why?

REFLECT Does your identity status vary across the domains of sexuality, close relationships, vocation, religious beliefs, and political values? Describe factors that may have influenced your identity development in an important domain.

image8 Moral Development

Eleven-year-old Sabrina sat at the kitchen table reading the Sunday newspaper, her eyes wide with interest. “Look at this!”she said to 16-year-old Louis, who was munching cereal. Sabrina held up a page of large photos showing a 70-year-old woman standing in her home. The floor and furniture were piled with stacks of newspapers, cardboard boxes, tin cans, glass containers, food, and clothing. The accompanying article described crumbling plaster on the walls, frozen pipes, and nonfunctioning sinks, toilet, and furnace. The headline read: “Loretta Perry: My Life Is None of Their Business.”

Cultural Influences Identity Development Among Ethnic Minority Adolescents


Stilt walkers celebrate their heritage at a Caribbean youth festival. Minority youths whose culture is respected in their community are more likely to incorporate ethnic values and customs into their identity

Most adolescents are aware of their cultural ancestry but relatively unconcerned about it. However, for teenagers who are members of minority groups,  ethnic identity —a sense of ethnic group membership and attitudes and feelings associated with that membership—is central to the quest for identity. As they develop cognitively and become more sensitive to feedback from the social environment, minority youths become painfully aware that they are targets of prejudice and discrimination. This discovery complicates their efforts to develop a sense of cultural belonging and a set of personally meaningful goals.

In many immigrant families from collectivist cultures, adolescents’ commitment to obeying their parents and fulfilling family obligations lessens the longer the family has been in the immigrant-receiving country—a circumstance that induces  acculturative stress , psychological distress resulting from conflict between the minority and the host culture (Phinney, Ong, & Madden,  2000 ). When immigrant parents tightly restrict their teenagers through fear that assimilation into the larger society will undermine their cultural traditions, their youngsters often rebel, rejecting aspects of their ethnic background.

At the same time, discrimination can interfere with the formation of a positive ethnic identity. In one study, Mexican-american youths who had experienced more discrimination were less likely to explore their ethnicity and to report feeling good about it (Romero & Roberts,  2003 ). hose with low ethnic pride showed a sharp drop in self-esteem in the face of discrimination.

With age, many minority young people strengthen their ethnic identity. But because the process of forging an ethnic identity can be painful and confusing, others show no change, and still others regress (huang & stormshak,  2011 ). Young people with parents of different ethnicities face extra challenges.

In a large survey of high school students, part-black biracial teenagers reported as much discrimination as their mono-racial black counterparts, yet they felt less positively about their ethnicity. And compared with monoracial minorities, many biracial young people—including black–white, black–asian, white–asian, black–hispanic, and white–hispanic—regarded ethnicity as less central to their identities (herman,  2004 ). Perhaps these adolescents encountered fewer opportunities in their homes and communities to forge a strong sense of belonging to either culture.

Adolescents whose family members encourage them to disprove ethnic stereotypes of low achievement or antisocial behavior typically surmount the threat that discrimination poses to a favorable ethnic identity. These young people manage experiences of unfair treatment effectively, by seeking social support and engaging in direct problem solving (Phinney & Chavira,  1995 ; Scott,  2003 ). also, adolescents whose families taught them the history, traditions, values, and language of their ethnic group and who frequently interact with same- ethnicity peers are more likely to forge a favorable ethnic identity (Hughes et al.,  2006 ; Mchale et al.,  2006 ).

· How can society help minority adolescents resolve identity conflicts constructively? Here are some relevant approaches:

· ● Promote effective parenting, in which children and adolescents benefit from family ethnic pride yet are encouraged to explore the meaning of ethnicity in their own lives.

· ● Ensure that schools respect minority youths’ native languages, unique learning styles, and right to high-quality education.

· ● Foster contact with peers of the same ethnicity, along with respect between ethnic groups (García Coll & Magnuson,  1997 ).

A strong, secure ethnic identity is associated with higher self-esteem, optimism, a sense of mastery over the environment, and more positive attitudes toward one’s ethnicity (St. Louis & Liem,  2005 ; umanataylor & updegraff,  2007 ; Worrell & Gardner-Kitt,  2006 ). For these reasons, adolescents with a positive connection to their ethnic group are better-adjusted. They cope more effectively with stress, show higher achievement in school, and have fewer emotional and behavior problems than agemates who identify only weakly with their ethnicity (Ghavami et al.,  2011 ; Greene, Way, & Pahl,  2006 ; Seaton, Scottham, & Sellers,  2006 ; Smana-Taylor & Alfaro,  2006).

Forming a  bicultural identity —by exploring and adopting values from both the adolescent’s subculture and the dominant culture—offers added benefits. Biculturally identified adolescents tend to be achieved in other areas of identity as well and to have especially favorable relations with members of other ethnic groups (Phinney,  2007 ; Phinney et al.,  2001 ). In sum, achievement of ethnic identity enhances many aspects of emotional and social development.

“Look what they’re trying to do to this poor lady,”exclaimed Sabrina. “They wanna throw her out of her house and tear it down! Those city inspectors must not care about anyone. Here it says, ‘Mrs. Perry has devoted much of her life to doing favors for people.’ Why doesn’t someone help her?

“Sabrina, you’re missing the point,”Louis responded. “Mrs. Perry is violating 30 building code standards. The law says you’re supposed to keep your house clean and in good repair.”

“But Louis, she’s old, and she needs help. She says her life will be over if they destroy her home.”

“The building inspectors aren’t being mean, Sabrina. She’s refusing to obey the law. And she’s not just a threat to herself—she’s a danger to her neighbors, too. Suppose her house caught on fire. You can’t live around other people and say your life is nobody’s business.”

“You don’t just knock someone’s home down,”Sabrina replied angrily. “Why aren’t her friends and neighbors over there fixing up that house? You’re just like those building inspectors, Louis. You’ve got no feelings!”

As Louis and Sabrina’s disagreement over Loretta Perry’s plight illustrates, cognitive development and expanding social experiences permit adolescents to better understand larger social structures—societal institutions and law-making systems—that govern moral responsibilities. As their grasp of social arrangements expands, adolescents construct new ideas about what should be done when the needs and desires of people conflict. As a result, they move toward increasingly just, fair, and balanced solutions to moral problems.

Kohlberg’s theory of Moral Development

Early work by Piaget on the moral judgment of the child inspired Lawrence Kohlberg’s more comprehensive cognitive-developmental theory of moral understanding. Kohlberg used a clinical interviewing procedure in which he presented a sample of 10- to 16-year-old boys with hypothetical moral dilemmas—stories involving a conflict between two moral values—and asked them what the main actor should do and why. Then he followed the participants longitudinally, reinter-viewing them at 3- to 4-year intervals over the next 20 years. The best known of Kohlberg’s dilemmas, the “Heinz dilemma,”pits the value of obeying the law (not stealing) against the value of human life (saving a dying person):

·  In Europe a woman was near death from cancer. There was one drug the doctors thought might save her. A druggist in the same town had discovered it, but he was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together half of what it cost. The druggist refused to sell the drug for less or let Heinz pay later. So Heinz became desperate and broke into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have done that? Why or why not? (paraphrased from Colby et al.,  1983 , p. 77)

Kohlberg emphasized that it is the way an individual reasons about the dilemma, not the content of the response (whether or not to steal), that determines moral maturity. Individuals who believe Heinz should take the drug and those who think he should not can be found at each of Kohlberg’s first four stages. Only at the two highest stages do moral reasoning and content come together in a coherent ethical system (Kohlberg, Levine, & Hewer,  1983 ). Given a choice between obeying the law and preserving individual rights, the most advanced moral thinkers support individual rights (in the Heinz dilemma, stealing the drug to save a life).  TAKE A MOMENT…  Does this remind you of adolescents’ efforts to formulate a sound, well-organized set of personal values in constructing an identity? According to some theorists, the development of identity and moral understanding are part of the same process (Bergman, 2004 ; Blasi,  1994 ).

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Understanding.

Kohlberg organized moral development into three levels, each with two stages, yielding six stages in all. He believed that moral understanding is promoted by the same factors Piaget thought were important for cognitive development: (1) actively grappling with moral issues and noticing weaknesses in one’s current reasoning, and (2) gains in perspective taking, which permit individuals to resolve moral conflicts in more effective ways.  TAKE A MOMENT…  As we examine Kohlberg’s developmental sequence and illustrate it with responses to the Heinz dilemma, look for changes in perspective taking that each stage assumes.

The Preconventional Level.

· At the  preconventional level,  morality is externally controlled. Children accept the rules of authority figures and judge actions by their consequences. Behaviors that result in punishment are viewed as bad, those that lead to rewards as good.

· ●  Stage 1: The punishment and obedience orientation.  Children at this stage find it difficult to consider two points of view in a moral dilemma. As a result, they overlook people’s intentions. Instead, they focus on fear of authority and avoidance of punishment as reasons for behaving morally.

·  Prostealing: “If you let your wife die, you will … be blamed for not spending the money to help her and there’ll be an investigation of you and the druggist for your wife’s death.”(Kohlberg,  1969 , p. 381)

·  Antistealing: “You shouldn’t steal the drug because you’ll be caught and sent to jail if you do. If you do get away, [you’d be scared that] the police would catch up with you any minute.”(Kohlberg,  1969 , p. 381)

· ●  Stage 2: The instrumental purpose orientation.  Children become aware that people can have different perspectives in a moral dilemma, but at first this understanding is concrete. They view right action as flowing from self-interest and understand reciprocity as equal exchange of favors: “You do this for me and I’ll do that for you.” image10

If the child on the right expects a favor in return for helping her friend, she is at Kohlberg’s preconventional level. If she is motivated by ideal reciprocity, as in the Golden Rule, she has advanced to the conventional level.

· Prostealing: “[I]f Heinz decides to risk jail to save his wife, it’s his life he’s risking; he can do what he wants with it. And the same goes for the druggist; it’s up to him to decide what he wants to do.”(Rest,  1979 , p. 26)

·  Antistealing: “[Heinz] is running more risk than it’s worth [to save a wife who is near death].”(Rest,  1979 , p. 27)

· The Conventional Level.  At the  conventional level,  individuals continue to regard conformity to social rules as important, but not for reasons of self-interest. Rather, they believe that actively maintaining the current social system ensures positive relationships and societal order.

· ●  Stage 3: The “good boy–good girl”orientation, or the morality of interpersonal cooperation.  The desire to obey rules because they promote social harmony first appears in the context of close personal ties. Stage 3 individuals want to maintain the affection and approval of friends and relatives by being a “good person”—trustworthy, loyal, respectful, helpful, and nice. The capacity to view a two-person relationship from the vantage point of an impartial, outside observer supports this new approach to morality. At this stage, individuals understand ideal reciprocity: They express the same concern for the welfare of another as they do for themselves—a standard of fairness summed up by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

·  Prostealing: “No one will think you’re bad if you steal the drug, but your family will think you’re an inhuman husband if you don’t. If you let your wife die, you’ll never be able to look anyone in the face again.”(Kohlberg,  1969 , p. 381)

·  Antistealing: “It isn’t just the druggist who will think you’re a criminal, everyone else will too…. [Y]ou’ll feel bad thinking how you’ve brought dishonor on your family and yourself.”(Kohlberg,  1969 , p. 381)

· ●  Stage 4: The social-order-maintaining orientation.  At this stage, the individual takes into account a larger perspective—that of societal laws. Moral choices no longer depend on close ties to others. Instead, rules must be enforced in the same evenhanded fashion for everyone, and each member of society has a personal duty to uphold them. The Stage 4 individual believes that laws should never be disobeyed because they are vital for ensuring societal order and cooperation between people.

·  Prostealing: “Heinz has a duty to protect his wife’s life; it’s a vow he took in marriage. But it’s wrong to steal, so he would have to take the drug with the idea of paying the druggist for it and accepting the penalty for breaking the law later.”

·  Antistealing: “Even if his wife is dying, it’s still [Heinz’s] duty as a citizen to obey the law…. If everyone starts breaking the law in a jam, there’d be no civilization, just crime and violence.”(Rest, 1979,  p. 30 )

· The Postconventional or Principled Level.  Individuals at the  postconventional level  move beyond unquestioning support for their own society’s rules and laws. They define morality in terms of abstract principles and values that apply to all situations and societies.

· ●  Stage 5: The social contract orientation.  At Stage 5, individuals regard laws and rules as flexible instruments for furthering human purposes. They can imagine alternatives to their own social order, and they emphasize fair procedures for interpreting and changing the law. When laws are consistent with individual rights and the interests of the majority, each person follows them because of a social contract orientation—free and willing participation in the system because it brings about more good for people than if it did not exist.

·  Prostealing: “Although there is a law against stealing, the law wasn’t meant to violate a person’s right to life…. If Heinz is prosecuted for stealing, the law needs to be reinterpreted to take into account situations in which it goes against people’s natural right to keep on living.”

·  Antistealing: At this stage, there are no antistealing responses.

· ●  Stage 6: The universal ethical principle orientation.  At this highest stage, right action is defined by self-chosen ethical principles of conscience that are valid for all people, regardless of law and social agreement. Stage 6 individuals typically mention such abstract principles as respect for the worth and dignity of each person.

·  Prostealing: “It doesn’t make sense to put respect for property above respect for life itself. [People] could live together without private property at all. Respect for human life and personality is absolute and accordingly [people] have a mutual duty to save one another from dying.”(Rest,  1979 , p. 37)

·  Antistealing: At this stage, there are no antistealing responses.

Research on Kohlberg’s Stage Sequence.

Kohlberg’s original research and other longitudinal studies provide the most convincing evidence for his stage sequence. With few exceptions, individuals move through the first four stages in the predicted order (Boom, Wouters, & Keller,  2007 ; Dawson,  2002 ; Walker & Taylor,  1991b ). Moral development is slow and gradual: Reasoning at Stages 1 and 2 decreases in early adolescence, while Stage 3 increases through midadolescence and then declines. Stage 4 reasoning rises over the teenage years until, among college-educated young adults, it is the typical response.

Few people move beyond Stage 4. In fact, postconventional morality is so rare that no clear evidence exists that Kohlberg’s Stage 6 actually follows Stage 5. This poses a key challenge to Kohlberg’s theory: If people must reach Stages 5 and 6 to be considered truly morally mature, few individuals anywhere would measure up! According to one reexamination of Kohlberg’s stages, moral maturity can be found in a revised understanding of Stages 3 and 4 (Gibbs,  1991  2010b ). These stages are not “conventional”—based on social conformity—as Kohlberg assumed. Rather, they require profound moral constructions—an understanding of ideal reciprocity as the basis for relationships (Stage 3) and for widely accepted moral standards, set forth in rules and laws (Stage 4). In this view, “postconventional”morality is a highly reflective endeavor limited to a handful of people who have attained advanced education, usually in philosophy.

TAKE A MOMENT…  Think of an actual moral dilemma you faced recently. How did you solve it? Did your reasoning fall at the same stage as your thinking about Heinz? Real-life conflicts often elicit moral reasoning below a person’s actual capacity because they involve practical considerations and mix cognition with intense emotion (Carpendale,  2000 ). Although adolescents and adults mention reasoning as their most frequent strategy for resolving these dilemmas, they also refer to other strategies—talking through issues with others, relying on intuition, and calling on religious and spiritual ideas. And they report feeling drained, confused, and torn by temptation—an emotional side of moral judgment not tapped by hypothetical situations, which evoke the upper limits of moral thought because they allow reflection without the interference of personal risk (Walker,  2004 ).

The influence of situational factors on moral judgments indicates that like Piaget’s cognitive stages, Kohlberg’s moral stages are loosely organized and overlapping. Rather than developing in a neat, stepwise fashion, people draw on a range of moral responses that vary with context. With age, this range shifts upward as less mature moral reasoning is gradually replaced by more advanced moral thought.

Are There Sex Differences in Moral reasoning?

As we have seen, real-life moral dilemmas often highlight the role of emotion in moral judgment. In the discussion at the beginning of this section, notice how Sabrina’s moral argument focuses on caring and commitment to others. Carol Gilligan (1982) is the best-known of those who have argued that Kohlberg’s theory does not adequately represent the morality of girls and women. Gilligan believes that feminine morality emphasizes an “ethic of care”that Kohlberg’s system devalues. Sabrina’s reasoning falls at Stage 3 because it is based on mutual trust and affection, whereas Louis’s is at Stage 4 because he emphasizes following the law. According to Gilligan, a concern for others is a different but no less valid basis for moral judgment than a focus on impersonal rights.

Many studies have tested Gilligan’s claim that Kohlberg’s approach underestimates the moral maturity of females, and most do not support it (Turiel,  2006 ; Walker,  2006 ). On hypothetical dilemmas as well as everyday moral problems, adolescent and adult females display reasoning at the same stage as their male agemates and often at a higher stage. And themes of justice and caring appear in the responses of both sexes (Jadack et al.,  1995 ; Walker,  1995 ). These findings suggest that although Kohlberg emphasized justice rather than caring as the highest moral ideal, his theory taps both sets of values.

Nevertheless, some evidence indicates that although the morality of males and females taps both orientations, females tend to emphasize care, whereas males either stress justice or focus equally on justice and care (Jaffee & Hyde,  2000 ; Wark & Krebs,  1996 ; Weisz & Black,  2002 ). This difference in emphasis, which appears more often in real-life dilemmas than in hypothetical ones, may reflect women’s greater involvement in daily activities involving care and concern for others.

Indeed, cultural context profoundly affects use of a care orientation. In one study, U.S. and Canadian 17- to 26-year-old females exceeded their male counterparts in complex reasoning about care issues. But Norwegian males were just as advanced as Norwegian females in care-based understanding (Skoe,  1998 ). Perhaps Norwegian culture, which explicitly endorses gender equality, induces boys and men to think deeply about interpersonal obligations.

Coordinating Moral, Social-Conventional, and Personal Concerns

Adolescents’ moral advances are also evident in their reasoning about situations that raise competing moral, social-conventional, and personal issues. In diverse Western and non-Western cultures, concern with matters of personal choice strengthens during the teenage years—a reflection of adolescents’ quest for identity and increasing independence (Neff & Helwig,  2002 ; Nucci,  2002 ). As young people firmly insist that parents not encroach on the personal arena (dress, hairstyle, diary records, friendships), disputes over these issues increase. Teenagers whose parents frequently intrude into their personal affairs report greater psychological stress (Hasebe, Nucci, & Nucci,  2004 ). In contrast, adolescents typically say that parents have a right to tell them what to do in moral and social-conventional situations. And when these issues spark disagreements, teenagers seldom challenge parental authority (Smetana & Daddis,  2002 ).

As they enlarge the range of issues they regard as personal, adolescents think more intently about conflicts between personal choice and community obligations—for example, whether, and under what conditions, it is permissible to restrict speech, religion, marriage, childbearing, group membership, and other individual rights (Wainryb,  1997 ). When asked if it is OK to exclude a child from a peer group on the basis of race or gender, fourth graders usually say exclusion is always unfair. But by tenth grade, young people, though increasingly mindful of fairness, indicate that under certain conditions—in intimate relationships (friendship) and private contexts (at home or in a small club), and on the basis of gender more often than race—exclusion is OK (Killen et al.,  2002 , 2007; Rutland, Killen, & Abrams, 2010). In explaining, they mention the right to personal choice as well as concerns about effective group functioning. Justifying her opinion that members of an all-boys music club need not let a girl in, one tenth grader commented, “[The girl and the boys] probably wouldn’t relate on very many things”(Killen et al., 2002,  p. 62  2007 ).


These teenagers participate in a demonstration in favor of gun control. Adolescent moral development involves thinking intently about conflicts between personal choice and community obligation—for example, whether, and under what conditions, individuals’ right to bear arms should be restricted.

As adolescents integrate personal rights with ideal reciprocity, they demand that the protections they want for themselves extend to others. For example, with age, they are more likely to defend the government’s right to limit the individual freedom to engage in risky health behaviors such as smoking and drinking, in the interest of the larger public good (Flanagan, Stout, & Gallay,  2008 ). Similarly, they eventually realize that violating strongly held conventions in favor of asserting personal choices—showing up at a wedding in a T-shirt, talking out of turn at a student council meeting—can harm others, either by inducing distress or by undermining fair treatment (Nucci,  2001 ). As their grasp of fairness deepens, young people realize that many social conventions have moral implications: They are vital for maintaining a just and peaceful society. Notice how this understanding is central to Kohlberg’s Stage 4, which is typically attained as adolescence draws to a close.

Influences on Moral Reasoning

Many factors influence moral understanding, including child-rearing practices, schooling, peer interaction, and culture. Growing evidence suggests that, as Kohlberg believed, these experiences work by presenting young people with cognitive challenges, which stimulate them to think about moral problems in more complex ways.

Child-Rearing Practices.

As in childhood, parenting practices associated with moral maturity in adolescence combine warmth, exchange of ideas, and appropriate demands for maturity. Adolescents who gain most in moral understanding have parents who engage in moral discussions, encourage pro-social behavior, and create a supportive atmosphere by listening sensitively, asking clarifying questions, and presenting higher-level reasoning (Carlo et al.,  2011 ; Pratt, Skoe, & Arnold,  2004 ; Wyatt & Carlo,  2002 ). In one study, 11-year-olds were asked what they thought an adult would say to justify a moral rule, such as not lying, stealing, or breaking a promise. Those with warm, demanding, communicative parents were far more likely than their agemates to point to the importance of ideal reciprocity: “You wouldn’t like it if I did it to you”(Leman,  2005 ). In contrast, when parents lecture, use threats, or make sarcastic remarks, adolescents show little or no change in moral reasoning over time (Walker & Taylor,  1991a ).


Years of schooling is a powerful predictor of movement to Kohlberg’s Stage 4 or higher (Dawson et al.,  2003 ; Gibbs et al.,  2007 ). Higher education introduces young people to social issues that extend beyond personal relationships to entire political or cultural groups. Consistent with this idea, college students who report more perspective-taking opportunities (for example, classes that emphasize open discussion of opinions, friendships with others of different cultural backgrounds) and who indicate that they have become more aware of social diversity tend to be advanced in moral reasoning (Comunian & Gielen,  2006 ; Mason & Gibbs,  1993a 1993b ).

Peer Interaction.

Interaction among peers who present differing viewpoints promotes moral understanding. When young people negotiate and compromise, they realize that social life can be based on cooperation between equals rather than authority relations (Killen & Nucci, 1995 ). Adolescents who report more close friendships and who more often participate in conversations with their friends are advanced in moral reasoning (Schonert-Reichl,  1999 ). The mutuality and intimacy of friendship, which foster decisions based on consensual agreement, may be particularly important for moral development. Furthermore, recall from  Chapter 10  that intergroup contact—cross-race friendships and interactions in schools and communities—reduces racial and ethnic prejudice. It also affects young people morally, strengthening their conviction that race-based and other forms of peer exclusion are wrong (Crystal, Killen, & Ruck,  2008 ).

Peer discussions and role playing of moral problems have provided the basis for interventions aimed at improving high school and college students’ moral understanding. For these discussions to be effective, young people must be highly engaged—confronting, critiquing, and attempting to clarify one another’s viewpoints, as Sabrina and Louis did when they argued over Mrs. Perry’s plight (Berkowitz & Gibbs,  1983 ; Comunian & Gielen,  2006 ). And because moral development occurs gradually, many peer interaction sessions over weeks or months typically are needed to produce moral change.


Individuals in industrialized nations move through Kohlberg’s stages more quickly and advance to a higher level than individuals in village societies, who rarely move beyond Stage 3. One explanation of these cultural differences is that in village societies, moral cooperation is based on direct relations between people and does not allow for the development of advanced moral understanding (Stages 4 to 6), which depends on appreciating the role of larger social structures, such as laws and government institutions (Gibbs et al.,  2007 ).

A second possible reason for cultural variation is that responses to moral dilemmas in collectivist cultures (including village societies) are often more other-directed than in Western Europe and North America (Miller,  2006 ). In both village and industrialized cultures that highly value interdependency, statements portraying the individual as vitally connected to the social group are common. In one study, Japanese adolescents, who almost always integrated care- and justice-based reasoning, placed greater weight on care, which they regarded as a communal responsibility (Shimizu,  2001 ). Similarly, in research conducted in India, even highly educated people (expected to have attained Kohlberg’s Stages 4 and 5) viewed solutions to moral dilemmas as the responsibility of the entire society, not of a single person (Miller & Bersoff,  1995 ).

These findings raise the question of whether Kohlberg’s highest level represents a culturally specific way of thinking—one limited to Western societies that emphasize individualism and an appeal to an inner, private conscience. At the same time, a review of over 100 studies confirmed an age-related trend consistent with Kohlberg’s Stages 1 to 4 across diverse societies (Gibbs et al.,  2007 ). A common justice morality is clearly evident in the dilemma responses of people from vastly different cultures.

Moral Reasoning and Behavior

A central assumption of the cognitive-developmental perspective is that moral understanding should affect moral action. According to Kohlberg, mature moral thinkers realize that behaving in line with their beliefs is vital for creating and maintaining a just social world (Gibbs,  2010b ). Consistent with this idea, higher-stage adolescents more often act prosocially by helping, sharing, and defending victims of injustice and by volunteering in their communities (Carlo et al.,  1996  2011 ; Comunian & Gielen,  2000  2006 ). Also, they less often engage in cheating, aggression, and other antisocial behaviors (Gregg, Gibbs, & Fuller,  1994 ; Raaijmakers, Engels, & van Hoof,  2005 ; Stams et al.,  2006 ).

Yet the connection between mature moral reasoning and action is only modest. As we have seen, moral behavior is influenced by many factors besides cognition, including the emotions of empathy, sympathy, and guilt; individual differences in temperament; and a long history of cultural experiences and intuitive beliefs that affect moral decision making (Haidt & Kesebir,  2010 ).  Moral identity —the degree to which morality is central to self-concept—also affects moral behavior (Hardy & Carlo,  2011 ). In a study of low-SES African-American and Hispanic teenagers, those who emphasized moral traits and goals in their self-descriptions displayed exceptional levels of community service (Hart & Fegley,  1995 ). But they did not differ from their agemates in moral reasoning.

Researchers have begun to identify factors that strengthen moral identity in hopes of capitalizing on them to promote moral commitment. Certain parenting practices—inductive discipline (see  page 264  in  Chapter 8 ) and clearly conveyed moral expectations—augment adolescents’ moral identity (Patrick & Gibbs,  2011 ). And just educational environments—in which teachers guide students in democratic decision making and rule setting, resolving disputes civilly, and taking responsibility for others’ welfare—are influential (Atkins, Hart, & Donnelly,  2004 ). In one study, tenth graders who reported fair teacher treatment were more likely than those who had experienced unjust treatment (an unfair detention or a lower grade than they deserved) to regard excluding a peer on the basis of race as a moral transgression (Crystal, Killen, & Ruck,  2010 ).


Members of this small village community in Mozambique experience moral cooperation as based on direct relations between people. Consequently, their moral reasoning is unlikely to advance beyond Kohlberg’s Stage 3.

Schools can also foster students’ opportunities to experience and explore moral emotions, thoughts, and actions through civic engagement. As the  Social Issues: Education  box on the following page reveals, civic engagement can help young people see the connection between their personal interests and the public interest—an insight that may foster all aspects of morality.


Would you characterize your high school as a just educational environment? Cite specific features and experiences that may have contributed to students’ moral development and civic engagement.

Religious Involvement and Moral Development

Recall that in resolving real-life moral dilemmas, many people voice notions of religion and spirituality. Religion is especially important in U.S. family life. In recent national polls, nearly two-thirds of Americans reported actively practicing religion, compared with one-half of those in Canada, one-third of those in Great Britain and Italy, and even fewer elsewhere in Europe (CIA, 2012; Gallup News Service, 2006 ; Jones,  2003 ). People who regularly attend religious services include many parents with children. But as adolescents search for a personally meaningful identity, formal religious involvement declines—for U.S. youths, from 55 percent at ages 13 to 15 to 40 percent at ages 17 to 18 (Kerestes & Youniss,  2003 ; Pew Research Center,  2010b ).

Nevertheless, teenagers who remain part of a religious community are advantaged in moral values and behavior. Compared with nonaffiliated youths, they are more involved in community service activities aimed at helping the less fortunate (Kerestes, Youniss, & Metz,  2004 ). And religious involvement promotes responsible academic and social behavior and discourages misconduct (Dowling et al.,  2004 ). It is associated with lower levels of drug and alcohol use, early sexual activity, and delinquency (Regnerus, Smith, & Fritsch,  2003 ).

A variety of factors probably contribute to these favorable outcomes. In a study of inner-city high school students, religiously involved young people were more likely to report trusting relationships with parents, adults, and friends who hold similar worldviews. The more activities they shared with this network, the higher they scored in empathy and prosocial behavior (King & Furrow,  2004 ). Furthermore, religious education and youth activities directly teach concern for others and provide opportunities for moral discussions and civic engagement. And adolescents who feel connected to a higher being may develop certain inner strengths, including prosocial values and a strong moral identity, that help them translate their thinking into action (Hardy & Carlo,  2005 ; Sherrod & Spiewak,  2008 ).

Because most teenagers, regardless of formal affiliation, identify with a religious denomination and say they believe in a higher being, religious institutions may be uniquely suited to foster moral and prosocial commitments. For youths in inner-city neighborhoods with few alternative sources of social support, outreach by religious institutions can lead to life-altering involvement (Jang & Johnson,  2001 ). An exception is seen in religious cults, where rigid indoctrination into the group’s beliefs, suppression of individuality, and estrangement from society all work against moral maturity (Scarlett & Warren,  2010 ).

Further Challenges to Kohlberg’s Theory

Although much evidence is consistent with the cognitive- developmental approach to morality, Kohlberg’s theory has faced major challenges. The most radical opposition comes from researchers who—referring to wide variability in moral reasoning across situations—claim that Kohlberg’s stage sequence inadequately accounts for morality in everyday life (Krebs and Denton,  2005 ). These investigators favor abandoning Kohlberg’s stages for a pragmatic approach to morality. They assert that each person makes moral judgments at varying levels of maturity, depending on the individual’s current context and motivations: Conflict over a business deal is likely to evoke Stage 2 (instrumental purpose) reasoning, a friendship or romantic dispute Stage 3 (ideal reciprocity) reasoning, and a breach of contract Stage 4 (social-order-maintaining) reasoning (Krebs et al.,  1991 ).

According to the pragmatic view, everyday moral judgments—rather than being efforts to arrive at just solutions—are practical tools that people use to achieve their goals. To benefit personally, they often must advocate cooperation with others. But people often act first and then invoke moral judgments to rationalize their actions, regardless of whether their behavior is self-centered or prosocial (Haidt,  2001 ; Haidt & Kesebir,  2010 ). And sometimes people use moral judgments for immoral purposes—for example, to excuse their transgressions.

Is the pragmatic approach correct that people strive to resolve moral conflicts fairly only when they themselves have nothing to lose? Supporters of the cognitive-developmental perspective point out that people frequently rise above self- interest to defend others’ rights. For example, moral leaders in business—rather than resorting to Stage 2 reasoning—endorse trust, integrity, good faith, and just laws and codes of conduct (Damon,  2004 ; Gibbs,  2006 ). Also, adolescents and adults are well aware of the greater adequacy of higher-stage moral reasoning, which some people act on despite highly corrupt environments. And individuals who engage in sudden altruistic action may have previously considered relevant moral issues so thoroughly that their moral judgment activates automatically, triggering an immediate response (Gibbs et al.,  2009a ; Pizarro & Bloom,  2003 ). In these instances, people who appear to be engaging in after-the-fact moral justification are actually behaving with great forethought.


Playing in a brass quartet at church gives these adolescents a sense of connection to their faith. Religious involvement promotes teenagers’ moral development, encouraging responsible academic work and community service.

Social Issues: Education Development of Civic Engagement

On thanksgiving Day, Jules, Martin, Louis, and Sabrina joined their parents to serve a holiday dinner to poverty-stricken people. Throughout the year, Sabrina volunteered on saturday mornings at a nursing home. During a congressional election campaign, all four adolescents raised questions about issues at special youth meetings with candidates. At school, Louis and his girlfriend, Cassie, formed an organization devoted to promoting ethnic and racial tolerance.

These young people show a strong sense of civic engagement—a complex combination of cognition, emotion, and behavior. Civic engagement involves knowledge of political issues, commitment to making a difference in the community, and skills for achieving civic goals, such as how to resolve differing views fairly (Zaff et al.,  2010 ).

When young people engage in community service that exposes them to people in need or to public issues, they are especially likely to express a commitment to future service. And youth volunteers—who tend to be advanced in moral reasoning—gain further in moral maturity as a result of participating (Gibbs et al.,  2007 ; Hart, Atkins, & Donnelly,  2006 ). Family, school, and community experiences contribute to adolescents’ civic engagement.

Family Influences

Teenagers whose parents encourage their children to form opinions about controversial issues are more knowledgeable about civic issues and better able to see them from more than one perspective (Santoloupo & Pratt,  1994 ). also, adolescents whose parents engage in community service and stress compassion for the less fortunate tend to hold socially responsible values. When asked what causes unemployment or poverty, they more often mention situational and societal factors (lack of education, government policies, or the state of the economy) than individual factors (low intelligence or personal problems). Youths who endorse situational and societal causes, in turn, have more altruistic life goals (Flanagan & Tucker,  1999 ). and they engage in more civic activities into early adulthood (Zaff, Malanchuk, & Eccles,  2008 ).

School and Community Influences

A democratic climate at school, in which teachers promote respectful discussion of controversial issues, fosters knowledge and critical analysis of political issues and commitment to social causes (Torney-Purta, Barber, & Wilkenfeld,  2007 ). Furthermore, high school students who view their community as one in which adults care about youths and work to make the community better report higher levels of civic participation (Kahne & Sporte,  2008 ). Participation in extracurricular activities at school whose primary objectives are to induce social change outside the organization itself is also associated with civic commitment that persists into adulthood (Obradović & Masten,  2007 ; Zaff et al.,  2003 ).

Two aspects of these involvements seem to account for their lasting impact. First, they introduce adolescents to the vision and skills required for mature civic engagement. Within student government, political and vocational clubs, music and drama groups, and student newspaper and yearbook staffs, young people see how their actions affect the wider school and community. They realize that collectively they can achieve results greater than any one person can achieve alone. And they learn to work together, balancing strong convictions with compromise (Atkins, Hart, & Donnelly,  2004 ; Kirshner,  2009 ). Second, while producing a weekly newspaper, participating in a school play, or implementing a service project, young people explore political and moral ideals. Often they redefine their identities to include a responsibility to combat others’ misfortunes (Wheeler,  2002 ).

The power of family, school, and community to promote civic engagement may lie in discussions, educational practices, and activities that jointly foster moral thought, emotion, and behavior. In a comparison of nationally representative samples of 14-year-olds in 28 nations, u.s. young people excelled at community service, with 50 percent reporting membership in organizations devoted to volunteering (torney-Purta,  2002 ).

Currently, two-thirds of u.s. public schools provide students with community service opportunities. Nearly half of these have service-learning programs, which integrate service activities into the academic curriculum, and about one-third of students enroll. High school students who are required to serve their communities express as strong a desire to remain engaged as do students who volunteer. And when they reach early adulthood, they are equally likely to vote and participate in community organizations (Hart et al.,  2007 ; Metz & Youniss,  2005 ).

Still, most U.S. schools offering service learning do not have policies encouraging or mandating such programs. Furthermore, low-SES, inner-city youths—although they express high interest in contributing to society—attend schools and live in neighborhoods with fewer civic-training opportunities. As a result, they score substantially lower than higher-SES youths in civic knowledge and participation (Balsano,  2005 ; Zaff et al.,  2010 ). A broad societal commitment to fostering civic character must pay special attention to supportive experiences for these young people, so their eagerness to make a difference can be realized.


For this young teenager, planting a tree during an Earth Day celebration in los Angeles promotes a sense of civic engagement—an effect that may persist into adulthood.

In sum, the cognitive-developmental approach to morality has done much to clarify our profound moral potential. And despite opposition, Kohlberg’s central assumption—that with age, humans everywhere construct a deeper understanding of fairness and justice that guides moral action—remains powerfully influential.


For some young people, early adolescence is a time of gender intensification. Pubertal changes in appearance, traditional gender-role expectations of parents, and increased concern with what others think can prompt a move toward a more traditional gender identity.

image16 Gender Typing

As Sabrina entered adolescence, she began to worry about walking, talking, eating, dressing, laughing, and competing in ways consistent with a feminine gender role. According to one hypothesis, the arrival of adolescence is typically accompanied by  gender intensification —increased gender stereotyping of attitudes and behavior, and movement toward a more traditional gender identity. Research on gender intensification, however, is mixed, with some studies finding evidence for it and others reporting few instances (Basow & Rubin,  1999 ; Galambos, Almeida, & Petersen,  1990 ; Huston & Alvarez,  1990 ; Priess, Lindberg, & Hyde,  2009 ). When gender intensification is evident, it seems to be stronger for adolescent girls. Although girls continue to be less gender-typed than boys, some may feel less free to experiment with “other-gender”activities and behaviors than they did in middle childhood.

In young people who do exhibit gender intensification, biological, social, and cognitive factors likely are involved. As puberty magnifies sex differences in appearance, teenagers may spend more time thinking about themselves in gender-linked ways. Pubertal changes might also prompt gender-typed pressures from others. Parents with traditional gender-role beliefs may encourage “gender-appropriate”activities and behavior more than they did earlier (Crouter et al.,  2007 ; Shanahan et al.,  2007 ). And when adolescents start to date, they may become more gender-typed as a way of increasing their attractiveness (Maccoby,  1998 ). Finally, cognitive changes—in particular, greater concern with what others think—might make young teenagers more responsive to gender-role expectations.

Gender intensification declines by late adolescence, but not all affected young people move beyond it to the same degree. Teenagers who are encouraged to explore non-gender-typed options and to question the value of gender stereotypes for themselves and society are more likely to build an androgynous gender identity (see  Chapter 8  page 276 ). Overall, androgynous adolescents, especially girls, tend to be psychologically healthier—more self-confident, more willing to speak their own mind, better-liked by peers, and identity-achieved (Bronstein,  2006 ; Dusek,  1987 ; Harter,  2006 ).


REVIEW How does an understanding of ideal reciprocity contribute to moral development? Why are Kohlberg’s Stages 3 and 4 morally mature?

CONNECT How might the exploration of values and goals associated with healthy identity development contribute to a decline in adolescent gender intensification?

APPLY Tam grew up in a small village culture, Lydia in a large industrial city. At age 15, Tam reasons at Kohlberg’s Stage 3, Lydia at Stage 4. What factors might account for the difference?

REFLECT Do you favor a cognitive-developmental or a pragmatic approach to morality, or both? Explain, drawing on research evidence and personal experiences.

image17 The Family

Franca and Antonio remember their son Louis’s freshman year of high school as a difficult time. Because of a demanding project at work, Franca was away from home many evenings and weekends. In her absence, Antonio took over, but when business declined and he had to cut costs at his hardware store, he, too, had less time for the family. That year, Louis and two friends used their computer know-how to gain entry to their classmates’ systems to pirate video game software. Louis’s grades fell, and he often left the house without saying where he was going. Franca and Antonio began to feel uncomfortable about the long hours Louis spent at his computer and their lack of contact with him. One day, when Franca and Antonio noticed the video-game icons covering Louis’s computer desktop, they knew they had cause for concern.

During adolescence, striving for  autonomy —a sense of oneself as a separate, self-governing individual—becomes a salient task. Autonomy has two vital aspects: (1) an emotional component—relying more on oneself and less on parents for support and guidance, and (2) a behavioral component—making decisions independently by carefully weighing one’s own judgment and the suggestions of others to arrive at a well-reasoned course of action (Collins & Laursen,  2004 ; Steinberg & Silk,  2002 ). As we will see, parent–child relationships remain vital for helping adolescents become autonomous, responsible individuals.

Parent–Child Relationships

A variety of changes within the adolescent support autonomy. In  Chapter 11 , we saw that puberty triggers psychological distancing from parents. In addition, as young people look more mature, parents give them more freedom to think and decide for themselves, more opportunities to regulate their own activities, and more responsibility (McElhaney et al.,  2009 ). Cognitive development also paves the way toward autonomy: Gradually, adolescents solve problems and make decisions more effectively. And an improved ability to reason about social relationships leads teenagers to deidealize their parents, viewing them as “just people.”Consequently, they no longer bend as easily to parental authority as they did when younger.

Yet as Franca and Antonio’s episode with Louis reveals, teenagers still need guidance and protection from dangerous situations. (Recall from  Chapter 11  our discussion of adolescent brain development, in which changes in the emotional/social network outpace gains in the cognitive-control network.) Warm, supportive parenting that grants young people freedom to explore while making appropriate demands for maturity fosters autonomy—in diverse ethnic and SES groups, nations, and family structures (including single-parent, two-parent, and stepparent). Autonomy, in turn, predicts high self-reliance, effortful control, academic achievement, positive work orientation, favorable self-esteem, and ease of separation in the transition to college (Bean, Barber, & Crane,  2007 ; Eisenberg et al.,  2005b ; Supple et al.,  2009 ; Vazsonyi, Hibbert, & Snider,  2003 ; Wang, Pomerantz, & Chen,  2007 ).

Conversely, parents who are coercive or psychologically controlling interfere with the development of autonomy. These tactics are linked to low self-esteem, depression, drug and alcohol use, and antisocial behavior—outcomes that often persist into early adulthood (Barber, Stolz, & Olsen,  2005 ; Bronte-Tinkew, Moore, & Carrano,  2006 ; Wissink, Deković, & Meijer,  2006 ).

In  Chapter 2 , we described the family as a system that must adapt to changes in its members. The rapid physical and psychological changes of adolescence trigger conflicting expectations in parent–child relationships. Earlier we noted that interest in making choices about personal matters strengthens in adolescence. Yet parents and teenagers—especially young teen-agers—differ sharply on the appropriate age for granting certain privileges, such as control over clothing, school courses, going out with friends, and dating (Smetana,  2002 ). Consistent parental monitoring of the young person’s daily activities, through a cooperative relationship in which the adolescent willingly discloses information, is linked to a variety of positive outcomes—prevention of delinquency, reduction in sexual activity, improved school performance, and positive psychological well-being (Crouter & Head,  2002 ; Jacobson & Crockett,  2000 ).


Parent–child relationships are vital for helping adolescents attain autonomy. Though teenagers benefit from freedom to explore ideas and make their own decisions, they need guidance and protection from dangerous situations.


Ask an early adolescent and his or her parent for their views on when the young person is mature enough to begin dating, own a cell phone, create a Facebook page, and be given other privileges. Do adolescent and parent perspectives differ?

Parents’ own development can also lead to friction with teenagers. While their children face a boundless future and a wide array of choices, middle-aged parents must accept the fact that their own possibilities are narrowing (Holmbeck,  1996 ). Often parents can’t understand why the adolescent wants to skip family activities to be with peers. And teenagers fail to appreciate that parents want the family to spend as much time together as possible because an important period in their adult life—child rearing—will soon end.

Immigrant parents from cultures that place a high value on family closeness and obedience to authority have greater difficulty adapting to their teenagers’ push for autonomy, often reacting more strongly to adolescent disagreement. And as adolescents acquire the host culture’s language and are increasingly exposed to its individualistic values, immigrant parents may become even more critical, causing teenagers to rely less on the family network for social support, disclosing less about peer relationships, potentially risky activities, and personal feelings (Yau, Tasopoulos-Chan, & Smetana,  2009 ). The resulting acculturative stress is associated with a decline in self-esteem and a rise in anxiety, depressive symptoms, and deviant behavior, including alcohol use and delinquency (Park,  2009 ; Suarez Morales & Lopez,  2009 ; Warner et al.,  2006 ).

Throughout adolescence, the quality of the parent–child relationship is the single most consistent predictor of mental health. In well-functioning families, teenagers remain attached to parents and seek their advice, but they do so in a context of greater freedom (Collins & Steinberg,  2006 ). The mild conflict that typically arises facilitates adolescent identity and autonomy by helping family members express and tolerate disagreement. Conflicts also inform parents of teenagers’ changing needs and expectations, signaling a need for adjustments in the parent–child relationship.

By middle to late adolescence, most parents and children achieve this mature, mutual relationship, and harmonious interaction is on the rise. The reduced time that Western teenagers spend with parents—for U.S. youths, a drop from 33 percent of waking hours in fifth grade to 14 percent in twelfth grade—has little to do with conflict (Larson et al.,  1996 ). Rather, it results from the large amount of unstructured time available to teenagers in North America and Western Europe—on average, nearly half their waking hours (Larson, 2001 ). Young people tend to fill these hours with activities that take them away from home—part-time jobs, leisure and volunteer pursuits, and time with friends.

But this drop in family time is not universal. In one study, urban low- and middle-SES African-American youths showed no decline in hours spent with family—a pattern typical in cultures with collectivist values (Larson et al.,  2001 ). Furthermore, teenagers living in risky neighborhoods tend to have more trusting relationships with parents and adjust more favorably when parents maintain tighter control and pressure them not to engage in worrisome behaviors (McElhaney & Allen,  2001 ). In harsh surroundings, young people seem to interpret more measured granting of autonomy as a sign of parental caring.

Family Circumstances

As Franca and Antonio’s experience with Louis reminds us, adult life stress can interfere with warm, involved parenting and, in turn, with children’s adjustment at any period of development. But parents who are financially secure, not overloaded with job pressures, and content with their marriages usually find it easier to grant teenagers appropriate autonomy and experience less conflict with them (Cowan & Cowan,  2002 ; Crouter & Bumpass,  2001 ). When Franca and Antonio’s work stress eased and they recognized Louis’s need for more involvement and guidance, his problems subsided.

Among the minority of families with seriously troubled parent–adolescent relationships, most difficulties began in childhood (Collins & Laursen,  2004 ).  Table 12.2  summarizes family conditions considered in earlier chapters that pose challenges for adolescents. Teenagers who develop well despite family stress continue to benefit from factors that fostered resilience in earlier years: an appealing, easy-going disposition; a parent who combines warmth with high expectations; and (especially if parental supports are lacking) bonds with prosocial adults outside the family who care deeply about the adolescent’s well- being (Masten,  2001 ; Masten & Shaffer,  2006 ).

TABLE 12.2 Family Circumstances with Implications for Adolescent Adjustment

Adoptive Chapter 2  pages 57  59
Divorced single-parent Chapter 10  pages 346  349
Blended Chapter 10  pages 349  350
Employed mother and dual-earner Chapter 10  pages 350  351
Economic hardship Chapter 2  pages 61  62
Child maltreatment Chapter 8  pages 281  283

Chapter 10  pages 352  354

Adolescent parenthood Chapter 11  pages 378  380


Like parent–child relationships, sibling interactions adapt to development at adolescence. As younger siblings become more self-sufficient, they accept less direction from their older brothers and sisters, and sibling influence declines. Also, as teenagers become more involved in friendships and romantic relationships, they invest less time and energy in siblings, who are part of the family from which they are trying to establish autonomy. As a result, sibling relationships often become less intense, in both positive and negative feelings (Hetherington, Henderson, & Reiss,  1999 ; Kim et al.,  2006 ).

Nevertheless, attachment between siblings remains strong for most young people. Overall, siblings who established a positive bond in early childhood continue to display greater affection and caring, which contribute to more favorable adolescent adjustment (Kim et al., 2007 ; Samek & Rueter,  2011 ). Culture also influences quality of sibling relationships. In one study, Mexican-American adolescents who expressed a strong Mexican cultural orientation resolved sibling conflicts more cooperatively than did those more oriented toward U.S. individualistic values (Killoren, Thayer, & Updegraff,  2008 ).

Finally, mild sibling differences in perceived parental affection no longer trigger jealousy but, instead, predict greater sibling warmth (Feinberg et al.,  2003 ). Perhaps adolescents interpret a unique relationship with parents, as long as it is generally accepting, as a gratifying sign of their own individuality.

image19 Peer Relations

As adolescents spend less time with family members, peers become increasingly important. In industrialized nations, young people spend most of each weekday with agemates in school. Teenagers also spend much out-of-class time together, more in some cultures than others. For example, U.S. young people have about 50 hours of free time per week, Europeans about 45 hours, and East Asians about 33 hours (Larson,  2001 ). A shorter school year and less demanding academic standards, which lead American youths to devote much less time to school-work, account for this difference.

In the following sections, we will see that adolescent peer relations can be both positive and negative. At their best, peers serve as critical bridges between the family and adult social roles.


Number of best friends declines from about four to six in early adolescence to one or two in adulthood (Hartup & Stevens,  1999 ). At the same time, the nature of the relationship changes.

Characteristics of Adolescent Friendships.

When asked about the meaning of friendship, teenagers stress three characteristics. The most important is intimacy, or psychological closeness, which is supported by mutual understanding of each other’s values, beliefs, and feelings. In addition, more than younger children, teenagers want their friends to be loyal—to stick up for them and not leave them for somebody else (Collins & Madsen,  2006).

As frankness and faithfulness increase, self-disclosure (sharing of private thoughts and feelings) between friends rises over the adolescent years (see  Figure 12.1 ). As a result, teenage friends get to know each other better as personalities. In addition to the many characteristics that school-age friends share (see  page 340  in  Chapter 10 ), adolescent friends tend to be alike in identity status, educational aspirations, political beliefs, and willingness to try drugs and engage in lawbreaking acts. Over time, they become increasingly similar in these ways (Berndt & Murphy,  2002 ; Selfhout, Branje, & Meeus,  2008 ). Occasionally, however, teenagers choose friends with differing attitudes and values, which permits them to explore new perspectives within the security of a compatible relationship.

During adolescence, cooperation and mutual affirmation between friends increase—changes that reflect greater skill at preserving the relationship and sensitivity to a friend’s needs and desires (De Goede, Branje, & Meeus,  2009 ). Adolescents also are less possessive of their friends than they were in childhood (Parker et al.,  2005 ). Desiring a certain degree of autonomy for themselves, they recognize that friends need this, too.

Sex Differences in Friendships.

TAKE A MOMENT…  Ask several adolescent girls and boys to describe their close friendships. You are likely to find a consistent sex difference: Emotional closeness is more common between girls than between boys (Markovits, Benenson, & Dolensky,  2001 ). Girls frequently get together to “just talk,”and their interactions contain more self-disclosure and supportive statements. In contrast, boys more often gather for an activity—usually sports and competitive games. Boys’ discussions usually focus on achievements in sports and school and involve more competition and conflict (Brendgen et al.,  2001 ; Rubin, Bukowski, & Parker,  2006 ).

Because of gender-role expectations, girls’ friendships typically focus on communal concerns, boys’ on achievement and status. Boys do form close friendship ties, but the quality of their friendships is more variable. Gender identity plays a role: Androgynous boys are just as likely as girls to form intimate same-sex ties, whereas highly “masculine”boys are less likely to do so (Jones & Dembo,  1989 ).


FIGURE 12.1 Age changes in reported self-disclosure to parents and peers, based on findings of several studies.

Self-disclosure to friends increases steadily during adolescence, reflecting intimacy as a major basis of friendship. Self-disclosure to romantic partners also rises, but it does not surpass intimacy with friends until the college years. Self-disclosure to parents declines in early adolescence, a time of mild parent–child conflict. As family relationships readjust to the young person’s increasing autonomy, self-disclosure to parents rises.

(From D. Buhrmester, 1996, “Need Fulfillment, Interpersonal Competence, and the Developmental Contexts of Early Adolescent Friendship,” in W. M. Bukowski, A. F. Newcomb, & W. W. hartup [Eds.], The Company They Keep: Friendship in Childhood and Adolescence, New York: Cambridge University Press,  p. 168 . Reprinted with permission of Cambridge University Press.)


Compared to boys, adolescent girls place a higher value on emotional closeness, engaging in more self-disclosure and supportive statements with friends.

Friendship closeness has costs as well as benefits. When friends focus on deeper thoughts and feelings, they tend to coruminate, or repeatedly mull over problems and negative emotions. Corumination, while contributing to high friendship quality, also triggers anxiety and depression—symptoms more common among girls than among boys (Hankin, Stone, & Wright,  2010 ; Rose, Carlson, & Waller, 2007 ). And when conflict arises between intimate friends, more potential exists for one party to harm the other through relational aggression—for example, by divulging sensitive personal information to outsiders. Partly for this reason, girls’ closest same-sex friendships tend to be of shorter duration than boys’ (Benenson & Christakos,  2003 ).

Friendships on the Internet.

Teenagers frequently use cell phones and the Internet to communicate with friends. About 75 percent of U.S. 12- to 17-year-olds own a cell phone, a rate that has nearly doubled during the past decade. Cell-phone texting has become the preferred means of electronic interaction between teenage friends, with cell calling second, followed by social networking sites and instant messaging (see  Figure 12.2 ). Girls use cell phones to text and call their friends considerably more often than boys (Lenhart et al.,  2010 ). These forms of online interaction seem to support friendship closeness. In several studies, as amount of online messaging between preexisting friends increased, so did young people’s perceptions of intimacy in the relationship and feelings of well-being (Reich, Subrahmanyam, & Espinoza,  2012 ; Valkenburg & Peter,  2007a  2007b  2009 ). The effect is largely due to friends’ online disclosure of personal information, such as worries, secrets, and romantic feelings.

Although mostly communicating with friends they know, teenagers are also drawn to meeting new people over the Internet. Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace (used by nearly three-fourths of U.S. teenagers) along with blogs, message boards, and chat rooms open up vast alternatives beyond their families, schools, and communities (Lenhart et al.,  2010 ). Through these online ties, young people explore central adolescent issues—sexuality, challenges in parent and peer relationships, and identity issues, including attitudes and values—in contexts that grant anonymity and, therefore, may feel less threatening than similar everyday conversations (Subrahmanyam, Smahel, & Greenfield,  2006 ; Valkenburg & Peter,  2011 ). Online interactions with strangers also offer some teenagers vital social support. Young people suffering from depression, eating disorders, and other problems can access message boards where participants provide mutual assistance, including a sense of group belonging and acceptance (Whitlock, Powers, & Eckenrode,  2006 ).

But online communication also poses dangers. In unmonitored chat rooms, teenagers are likely to encounter degrading racial and ethnic slurs and sexually obscene and harassing remarks (Subrahmanyam & Greenfield,  2008 ). Furthermore, in a survey of a nationally representative sample of U.S. 10- to 17-year-olds, 14 percent reported having formed online close friendships or romances. Although some of these youths were well-adjusted, many reported high levels of conflict with parents, peer victimization, depression, and delinquency (Wolak, Mitchell, & Finkelhor,  2003 ). They also more often had been asked by online friends for face-to-face meetings and had attended those meetings—without telling their parents.


FIGURE 12.2 Percentage of U.S. 12- to 17-year-olds who use various communication channels daily to contact friends.

A nationally representative sample of 800 U.S. 12- to 17-year-olds responded to a survey about their communication strategies with friends. Cell-phone texting emerged as the preferred channel, with over half of teenagers reporting that they used it daily.

(Adapted from Lenhart et al., 2010.)

Finally, time devoted to social media is rising among older children and adolescents. For example, nearly 45 percent send more than 50 texts per day, and more than 70 percent use social networking sites for an average of 37 minutes per day. Some evidence suggests that very high social media use is linked to unsatisfying face-to-face social experiences, boredom, unhappiness, and Internet addiction (obsessive Internet use) (Pea et al.,  2012 ; Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts,  2010 ; Smahel, Brown, & Blinka,  2012 ). Furthermore, high Internet consumers often engage in “face-to-face multitasking,”such as texting at the dinner table or web surfing while chatting with friends (Abelson, Ledeen, & Lewis,  2008 ). These behaviors detract from high-quality face-to-face communication.

In sum, the Internet’s value for enabling convenient and satisfying interaction among teenage friends must be weighed against its potential for facilitating harmful social consequences. Parents are wise to point out the risks of Internet communication, including excessive use, harassment, and exploitation, and to insist that teenagers follow Internet safety rules (see ).

Friendship and Adjustment.

As long as adolescent friendships are high in trust, intimate sharing, and support and not characterized by relational aggression or attraction to antisocial behavior, they contribute to many aspects of psychological health and competence into early adulthood (Bukowski,  2001 ; Waldrip,  2008 ), for several reasons:

· ● Close friendships provide opportunities to explore the self and develop a deep understanding of another. Through open, honest communication, friends become sensitive to each other’s strengths and weaknesses, needs and desires—a process that supports the development of self-concept, perspective taking, and identity.

· ● Close friendships provide a foundation for future intimate relationships. Recall from  Figure 12.1  that self-disclosure to friends precedes disclosure to romantic partners. Conversations with teenage friends about sexuality and romance, along with the intimacy of friendship itself, may help adolescents establish and work out problems in romantic partnerships (Connolly & Goldberg,  1999 ).

· ● Close friendships help young people deal with the stresses of adolescence. By enhancing sensitivity to and concern for another, supportive friendships promote empathy, sympathy, and prosocial behavior. As a result, friendships contribute to involvement in constructive youth activities, avoidance of antisocial acts, and psychological well-being (Lansford et al.,  2003 ; Wentzel, Barry, & Caldwell,  2004 ).

· ● Close friendships can improve attitudes toward and involvement in school. Close friendships promote good school adjustment, academically and socially (Wentzel, Barry, & Caldwell,  2004 ). When teenagers enjoy interacting with friends at school, they may begin to view all aspects of school life more positively.


Interview several adolescents about qualities they value most in their best friends. Ask how friendships have helped them cope with stress and resulted in other personal benefits.


These high school drama club members form a crowd, establishing relationships on the basis of shared abilities and interests. Crowd membership grants them an identity within the larger social structure of the school.

Cliques and Crowds

In early adolescence, peer groups (see  Chapter 10 ) become increasingly common and tightly knit. They are organized into  cliques, groups of about five to seven members who are friends and, therefore, usually resemble one another in family background, attitudes, and values (Brown & Dietz,  2009 ). At first, cliques are limited to same-sex members. Among girls but not boys, being in a clique predicts academic and social competence. Clique membership is more important to girls, who use it as a context for expressing emotional closeness (Henrich et al.,  2000 ). By midadolescence, mixed-sex cliques are common.

Among Western adolescents attending high schools with complex social structures, often several cliques with similar values form a larger, more loosely organized group called a  crowd.  Unlike the more intimate clique, membership in a crowd is based on reputation and stereotype, granting the adolescent an identity within the larger social structure of the school. Prominent crowds in a typical high school might include “brains”(nonathletes who enjoy academics), “jocks”(who are very involved in sports), “populars”(class leaders who are highly social and involved in activities), “partyers”(who value socializing but care little about schoolwork), “nonconformists”(who like unconventional clothing and music), “druggies”(who frequently use substances, engage in sexual risk-taking, and otherwise get into trouble), and “normals”(average to good students who get along with most other peers) (Kinney,  1999 ; Stone & Brown,  1999 ).

What influences the sorting of teenagers into cliques and crowds? Crowd affiliations are linked to strengths in adolescents’ self-concepts, which reflect their abilities and interests (Prinstein & La Greca,  2002 ). Ethnicity also plays a role. Minority teenagers who associate with an ethnically defined crowd, as opposed to a crowd reflecting their abilities and interests, may be motivated by discrimination in their school or neighborhood. Alternatively, they may be expressing a strong ethnic identity (Brown et al.,  2008 ). Family factors are important, too. In a study of 8,000 ninth to twelfth graders, adolescents who described their parents as authoritative were members of “brain,”“jock,”and “popular”groups that accepted both adult and peer reward systems. In contrast, boys with permissive parents aligned themselves with the “partyers”and “druggies,”suggesting lack of identification with adult reward systems (Durbin et al.,  1993 ).

These findings indicate that many peer-group values are extensions of ones acquired at home. Once adolescents join a clique or crowd, it can modify their beliefs and behavior. But the positive impact of having academically and socially skilled peers is greatest for teenagers whose own parents are authoritative. And the negative impact of having antisocial, drug-using friends is strongest for teenagers whose parents use less effective child-rearing styles (Mounts & Steinberg,  1995 ). In sum, family experiences affect the extent to which adolescents become like their peers over time.

As interest in dating increases, boys’ and girls’ cliques come together. Mixed-sex cliques provide boys and girls with models of how to interact and a chance to do so without having to be intimate (Connolly et al.,  2004 ). By late adolescence, when boys and girls feel comfortable enough about approaching each other directly, the mixed-sex clique disappears (Connolly & Goldberg,  1999 ).

Crowds also decline in importance. As adolescents settle on personal values and goals, they no longer feel a need to broadcast, through dress, language, and activities, who they are. From tenth to twelfth grade, about half of young people switch crowds, mostly in favorable directions (Strouse,  1999 ). “Brains”and “normal”crowds grow and deviant crowds lose members as teenagers focus more on their future.


The hormonal changes of puberty increase sexual interest, but cultural expectations determine when and how dating begins. Asian youths start dating later and have fewer dating partners than young people in Western societies, which tolerate and even encourage romantic involvements from middle school on (see  Figure 12.3 ). At age 12 to 14, these relationships are usually casual, lasting only five months on average. By age 16, they have become steady relationships, continuing, on average, for nearly two years (Carver, Joyner, & Udry,  2003 ). Early adolescents tend to mention recreation and achieving peer status as reasons for dating. By late adolescence, as young people are ready for greater psychological intimacy, they seek dating partners who offer personal compatibility, companionship, affection, and social support (Collins & van Dulmen,  2006b ; Meier & Allen,  2009 ).


For this young couple out shopping together, dating extends the benefits of adolescent friendships, promoting sensitivity, empathy, self-esteem, and identity development.

The achievement of intimacy between dating partners typically lags behind that between friends. And positive relationships with parents and friends contribute to the development of warm romantic ties, whereas conflict-ridden parent–adolescent and peer relationships forecast hostile dating interactions (Connolly, Furman, & Konarski,  2000 ; Furman & Collins,  2009 ). Recall from  Chapter 6  that according to ethological theory, early attachment bonds lead to an internal working model, or set of expectations about attachment figures, that guides later close relationships. Consistent with this idea, secure attachment to parents in infancy and childhood—together with recollections of that security in adolescence—predicts quality of teenagers’ friendship and romantic ties (Collins & van Dulmen, 2006a ; Collins, Welsh, & Furman,  2009 ). And in a study of high school seniors, secure models of parental attachment and supportive interactions with parents predicted secure models of friendship, which, in turn, were related to the security of romantic relationships (Furman et al.,  2002 ).


FIGURE 12.3 Increase in romantic relationships in adolescence

More than 16,000 U.S. youths responded to an interview in which they indicated whether they had been involved in a romantic relationship during the past 18 months. At age 12, about one-fourth of young people reported them, a figure that rose to about three-fourths at age 18.

(Adapted from Carver, Joyner, & Udry, 2003.)

Perhaps because early adolescent dating relationships are shallow and stereotyped, early dating is related to drug use, delinquency, and poor academic achievement (Eaton et al.,  2007 ; Miller et al.,  2009 ). These factors, along with a history of uninvolved parenting and aggression in family and peer relationships, increase the likelihood of dating violence. About 10 to 20 percent of adolescents are physically or sexually abused by dating partners, with boys and girls equally likely to report being victims, and violence by one partner often returned by the other (Cyr, McDuff, & Wright,  2006 ; Williams et al.,  2008 ). Mental health consequences are severe, including increased anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, and risky sexual behavior (Wekerle & Avgoustis,  2003 ). Young teenagers are better off sticking with group activities, such as parties and dances, before becoming involved with a steady boyfriend or girlfriend.

Gay and lesbian youths face special challenges in initiating and maintaining visible romances. Their first dating relationships seem to be short-lived and to involve little emotional commitment, but for reasons different from those of heterosexuals: They fear peer harassment and rejection (Diamond & Lucas,  2004 ). Recall from  Chapter 11  that because of intense prejudice, homosexual adolescents often retreat into heterosexual dating. In addition, many have difficulty finding a same-sex partner because their gay and lesbian peers have not yet come out. Often their first contacts with other sexual-minority youths occur in support groups, where they are free to date publicly and can discuss concerns about coming out (Diamond,  2003 ).

As long as it does not begin too soon, dating provides lessons in cooperation, etiquette, and dealing with people in a wide range of situations. Among older teenagers, close romantic ties promote sensitivity, empathy, self-esteem, social support, and identity development. In addition, teenagers’ increasing capacity for interdependence and compromise within dating enhances the quality of other peer relationships (Collins, Welsh, & Furman,  2009 ).

Still, about half of first romances do not survive high school graduation, and those that do usually become less satisfying (Shaver, Furman, & Buhrmester,  1985 ). Because young people are still forming their identities, high school couples often find that they have little in common after graduation. Nevertheless, warm, caring romantic ties in adolescence can have long-term implications. They are positively related to gratifying, committed relationships in early adulthood (Meier & Allen,  2009 ).


REVIEW Describe the distinct positive functions of friendships, cliques, and crowds in adolescence. What factors lead some friendships and peer-group ties to be harmful?

CONNECT How might gender intensification contribute to the shallow quality of early adolescent dating relationships?

APPLY Thirteen-year-old Mattie’s parents are warm, firm in their expectations, and consistent in monitoring her activities. At school, Mattie met some girls who want her to tell her parents she’s going to a friend’s house and then, instead, join them at the beach for a party. Is Mattie likely to comply? Explain.

REFLECT How did family experiences influence your crowd membership in high school? How did your crowd membership influence your behavior?

image26 Problems of Development

Most young people move through adolescence with little disturbance. But as we have seen, some encounter major disruptions in development, such as early parenthood, substance abuse, and school failure. In each instance, biological and psychological changes, families, schools, peers, communities, and culture combine to yield particular outcomes. Serious difficulties rarely occur in isolation but are usually interrelated—as is apparent in three additional problems of the teenage years: depression, suicide, and delinquency.


Depression—feeling sad, frustrated, and hopeless about life, accompanied by loss of pleasure in most activities and disturbances in sleep, appetite, concentration, and energy—is the most common psychological problem of adolescence. Among U.S. teenagers, 20 to 50 percent experience mild to moderate feelings of depression, bouncing back after a short time. More worrisome are the 15 to 20 percent who have had one or more major depressive episodes, a rate comparable to that of adults. From 2 to 8 percent are chronically depressed—gloomy and self-critical for many months and sometimes years (Graber & Sontag,  2009 ; Rushton, Forcier, & Schectman, 2002 ).

Serious depression affects only 1 to 2 percent of children, many of whom (especially girls) remain depressed in adolescence. In addition, depression increases sharply from ages 12 to 16 in industrialized nations, with many more girls than boys displaying adolescent onset. Teenage girls are twice as likely as boys to report persistent depressed mood—a difference sustained throughout the lifespan (Dekker et al.,  2007 ; Hankin & Abela,  2005 ; Nolen-Hoeksema,  2006 ). If allowed to continue, depression seriously impairs social, academic, and vocational functioning. Unfortunately, the stereotypical view of adolescence as a period of storm and stress leads many adults to minimize the seriousness of adolescent depression, misinterpreting it as just a passing phase.

Factors Related to Depression.

The precise combination of biological and environmental factors leading to depression varies from one individual to the next. Kinship studies reveal that heredity plays an important role (Glowinski et al.,  2003 ). Genes can induce depression by affecting the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, the development of brain regions involved in inhibiting negative emotion, or the body’s hormonal response to stress.

But experience can also activate depression, promoting any of these biological changes. Parents of depressed children and adolescents display a high incidence of depression and other psychological disorders. Although a genetic risk may be passed from parent to child, in earlier chapters we saw that depressed or otherwise stressed parents often engage in maladaptive parenting. As a result, their child’s emotional self-regulation, attachment, and self-esteem may be impaired, with serious consequences for many cognitive and social skills (Abela et al.,  2005 ; Yap, Allen, & Ladouceur,  2008 ). Depressed youths usually display a learned-helpless attributional style (see  Chapter 10 ) (Graber,  2004 ). In a vulnerable young person, numerous events can spark depression—for example, failing at something important, parental divorce, or the end of a close friendship or romantic partnership.


In industrialized nations, stressful life events and gender-typed coping styles—passivity, dependency, and rumination—make adolescent girls more prone to depression than boys.

Sex Differences.

Why are girls more prone to depression than boys? Biological changes associated with puberty cannot be responsible because the gender difference is limited to industrialized nations. In developing countries, rates of depression are similar for males and females and occasionally higher in males (Culbertson,  1997 ). Even in nations where females exceed males in depression, the size of the difference varies.

Instead, stressful life events and gender-typed coping styles seem to be responsible. Early-maturing girls are especially prone to depression (see  Chapter 11 ). Adolescent gender intensification may strengthen girls’ passivity, dependency, and tendency to ruminate on their anxieties and problems—maladaptive approaches to tasks expected of teenagers in complex cultures. Consistent with this explanation, adolescents who identify strongly with “feminine”traits ruminate more and are more depressed, regardless of their sex (Lopez, Driscoll, & Kistner,  2009 ; Papadakis et al.,  2006 ). And having friends with depressive symptoms is linked to a rise in teenagers’ own depressive symptoms, perhaps because corumination is high in such relationships (Conway et al.,  2011 ).

Girls who repeatedly feel troubled and insecure develop an overly reactive physiological stress response and cope more poorly with future challenges (Hyde, Mezulis, & Abramson,  2008 ; Nolen-Hoeksema,  2006 ). In this way, stressful experiences and stress reactivity feed on one another, sustaining depression. Profound depression can lead to suicidal thoughts, which all too often are translated into action.


The suicide rate increases from childhood to old age, but it jumps sharply at adolescence. Currently, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among American youths, after motor vehicle collisions and homicides. Perhaps because U.S. teenagers experience more stress and fewer supports than in the past, the adolescent suicide rate tripled between the mid-1960s and mid-1990s, followed by a slight decline (Spirito & Esposito-Smythers,  2006 ; U.S. Census Bureau,  2012b ). At the same time, rates of adolescent suicide vary widely among industrialized nations—low in Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain; intermediate in Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United States; and high in Finland, New Zealand, and Singapore (Bridge, Goldstein, & Brent,  2006 ). These international differences remain unexplained.

Factors Related to Adolescent Suicide.

Despite girls’ higher rates of depression, the number of boys who kill themselves exceeds the number of girls by a ratio of 3 or 4 to 1. Girls make more unsuccessful suicide attempts and use methods from which they are more likely to be revived, such as a sleeping pill overdose. In contrast, boys tend to choose techniques that lead to instant death, such as firearms or hanging (Langhinrichsen-Rohling, Friend, & Powell,  2009 ). Gender-role expectations may contribute; less tolerance exists for feelings of helplessness and failed efforts in males than in females.

Possibly due to higher levels of support from extended families, African Americans and Hispanics have lower suicide rates than Caucasian Americans. Recently, however, suicide has risen among African-American adolescent males; the current rate approaches that of Caucasian-American males. And Native-American youths commit suicide at rates two to six times national averages (Balis & Postolache,  2008 ; U.S. Census Bureau,  2012b ). High rates of profound family poverty, school failure, alcohol and drug use, and depression probably underlie these trends.

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths are also at high risk, attempting suicide three times as often as other adolescents. Those who have tried to kill themselves report more family conflict over their gender-atypical behavior, inner turmoil about their sexuality, and peer victimization due to their sexual orientation (D’Augelli et al.,  2005 ).

Suicide tends to occur in two types of young people. The first group includes adolescents who are highly intelligent but solitary, withdrawn, and unable to meet their own standards or those of important people in their lives. Members of the second, larger group show antisocial tendencies and express their unhappiness through bullying, fighting, stealing, increased risk taking, and drug abuse (Evans, Hawton, & Rodham,  2004 ). Besides being hostile and destructive, they turn their anger and disappointment inward.

Suicidal adolescents often have a family history of emotional and antisocial disorders. In addition, they are likely to have experienced multiple stressful life events, including economic disadvantage, parental divorce, frequent parent–child conflict, and abuse and neglect. Stressors typically increase during the period preceding a suicide attempt or completion (Beautrais,  2003 ; Kaminski et al.,  2010 ). Triggering events include parental blaming of the teenager for family problems, the breakup of an important peer relationship, or the humiliation of having been caught engaging in antisocial acts.

Public policies resulting in cultural disintegration have amplified suicide rates among Native-American youths. From the late 1800s to the 1970s, Native-American families were forced to enroll their children in government-run residential boarding schools designed to erase tribal affiliations. In these repressive institutions, children were not allowed to “be Indian”in any way—culturally, linguistically, artistically, or spiritually (Goldston et al.,  2008 ). The experience left many young people academically unprepared and emotionally scarred, contributing to family and community disorganization in current and succeeding generations (Barnes, Josefowitz, & Cole,  2006; Howell & Yuille,  2004 ). Consequently, alcohol abuse, youth crime, and suicide rates escalated.

Why does suicide increase in adolescence? One factor seems to be teenagers’ improved ability to plan ahead. Although some act impulsively, many young people take purposeful steps toward killing themselves. Other cognitive changes also contribute. Belief in the personal fable (see  Chapter 11 ) leads many depressed young people to conclude that no one could possibly understand their intense pain. As a result, despair, hopelessness, and isolation deepen.

Prevention and Treatment.

To prevent suicides, parents and teachers must be trained to pick up on the signals that a troubled teenager sends (see  Table 12.3 ). Schools and community settings, such as recreational and religious organizations, can help by strengthening adolescents’ connection with their cultural heritage and providing counseling and support (Goldston et al.,  2008 ; Miller,  2011 ). Once a teenager takes steps toward suicide, staying with the young person, listening, and expressing compassion and concern until professional help can be obtained are essential.

Treatments for depressed and suicidal adolescents range from antidepressant medication to individual, family, and group therapy. Until the adolescent improves, removing weapons, knives, razors, scissors, and drugs from the home is vital. On a broader scale, gun-control legislation that limits adolescents’ access to the most frequent and deadly suicide method in the United States would greatly reduce both the number of suicides and the high teenage homicide rate (Commission on Adolescent Suicide Prevention,  2005 ).

After a suicide, family and peer survivors need support to help them cope with grief, anger, and guilt over not having been able to help the victim. Teenage suicides often occur in clusters, with one death increasing the likelihood of others among depressed peers who knew the young person or heard about the suicide through the media (Bearman & Moody,  2004 ; Feigelman & Gorman,  2008 ). In view of this trend, an especially watchful eye must be kept on vulnerable adolescents after a suicide happens. Restraint by journalists in publicizing teenage suicides also aids prevention.

TABLE 12.3 Warning Signs of Suicide

Efforts to put personal affairs in order—smoothing over troubled relationships, giving away treasured possessions
Verbal cues—saying goodbye to family members and friends, making direct or indirect references to suicide (“I won’t have to worry about these problems much longer”; “I wish I were dead”)
Feelings of sadness, despondency, “not caring”anymore
Extreme fatigue, lack of energy, boredom
No desire to socialize; withdrawal from friends
Easily frustrated
Emotional outbursts—spells of crying or laughing, bursts of energy
Inability to concentrate, distractible
Decline in grades, absence from school, discipline problems
Neglect of personal appearance
Sleep change—loss of sleep or excessive sleepiness
Appetite change—eating more or less than usual
Physical complaints—stomachaches, backaches, headaches


Juvenile delinquents are children or adolescents who engage in illegal acts. Although youth crime has declined in the United States since the mid-1990s, 12- to 17-year-olds account for about 14 percent of police arrests, although they constitute only 8 percent of the population (U.S. Department of Justice, 2010). When asked directly and confidentially about lawbreaking, almost all teenagers admit to having committed some sort of offense—usually a minor crime, such as petty stealing or disorderly conduct (Flannery et al.,  2003 ).

Both police arrests and self-reports show that delinquency rises over early and middle adolescence and then declines (Farrington, 2009 ; U.S. Department of Justice, 2010). Recall that antisocial behavior increases among teenagers as a result of heightened reward seeking and desire for peer approval. Over time, peers become less influential; decision making, emotional self-regulation, and moral reasoning improve; and young people enter social contexts (such as higher education, work, marriage, and career) that are less conducive to lawbreaking.

For most adolescents, a brush with the law does not forecast long-term antisocial behavior. But repeated arrests are cause for concern. Teenagers are responsible for 15 percent of violent offenses in the United States (U.S. Department of Justice,  2010 ).

Biology and Environment Two Routes to Adolescent Delinquency

Persistent adolescent delinquency follows two paths of development, one involving a small number of youths with an onset of conduct problems in childhood, the second a larger number with an onset in adolescence. The early-onset type is far more likely to lead to a life-course pattern of aggression and criminality (Moffitt,  2007 ). The late-onset type usually does not persist beyond the transition to early adulthood.

Both childhood-onset and adolescent-onset youths engage in serious offenses; associate with deviant peers; participate in substance abuse, unsafe sex, and dangerous driving; and spend time in correctional facilities. Why does antisocial activity more often continue and escalate into violence in the first group? Longitudinal studies yield similar answers to this question. Most research has focused on boys, but several investigations report that girls who were physically aggressive in childhood are also at risk for later problems—occasionally violent delinquency but more often other norm-violating behaviors and psychological disorders (Broidy et al.,  2003 ; Chamberlain,  2003 ). Early relational aggression is linked to adolescent conduct problems as well.

Early-Onset Type

Early-onset youngsters seem to inherit traits that predispose them to aggressiveness (Pettit,  2004 ). For example, violence-prone boys are emotionally negative, restless, willful, and physically aggressive as early as age 2. They also show subtle deficits in cognitive functioning that seem to contribute to disruptions in the development of language, memory, and cognitive and emotional self-regulation (Moffitt,  2007 ; Shaw et al., 2003). Some have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which compounds their learning and self-control problems (see  Chapter 9  pages 304  305 ).

Yet these biological risks are not sufficient to sustain antisocial behavior: Most early-onset boys decline in aggression over time. Among those who follow the life-course path, inept parenting transforms their undercontrolled style into defiance and persistent aggression (Brame, Nagin, & Tremblay,  2001 ; Broidy et al.,  2003 ). As they fail academically and are rejected by peers, they befriend other deviant youths, who facilitate one another’s violent behavior while relieving loneliness (see  Figure 12.4 ) (hughes,  2010 ; Lacourse et al.,  2003 ). Limited cognitive and social skills result in high rates of school dropout and unemployment, contributing further to antisocial involvements. Often these boys experience their first arrest before age 14—a good indicator that they will be chronic offenders by age 18 (Patterson & Yoerger,  2002 ).

Preschoolers high in relational aggression also tend to be hyperactive and frequently in conflict with peers and adults (Willoughby, Kupersmidt, & Bryant,  2001 ). As these behaviors trigger peer rejection, relationally aggressive girls befriend other girls high in relational hostility, and their relational aggression rises (Werner & Crick,  2004 ). Adolescents high in relational aggression are often angry, vengeful, and defiant of adult rules. Among teenagers who combine physical and relational hostility, these oppositional reactions intensify, increasing the likelihood of serious antisocial activity (Harachi et al.,  2006 ; Prinstein, Boergers, & Vernberg,  2001 ).

Late-Onset Type

Other youths first display antisocial behavior around the time of puberty, gradually increasing their involvement. Their conduct problems arise from the peer context of early adolescence, not from biological deficits and a history of unfavorable development. For some, quality of parenting may decline for a time, perhaps due to family stresses or the challenges of disciplining an unruly teenager (Moffitt, 2007 ). When age brings gratifying adult privileges, these youths draw on pro-social skills mastered before adolescence and abandon their antisocial ways.

A few late-onset youths do continue to engage in antisocial acts. The seriousness of their adolescent offenses seems to trap them in situations that close off opportunities for responsible behavior. Being employed or in school and forming positive, close relationships predict an end to criminal offending by age 20 to 25 (Clingempeel & Henggeler,  2003 ; Stouthamer-Loeber et al.,  2004 ). In contrast, the longer antisocial young people spend in prison, the more likely they are to sustain a life of crime.

These findings suggest a need for a fresh look at policies aimed at stopping youth crime. Keeping youth offenders locked up for many years disrupts their vocational lives and access to social support during a crucial period of development, condemning them to a bleak future.


FIGURE 12.4 Path to chronic delinquency for adolescents with childhood-onset antisocial behavior.

Difficult temperament and cognitive deficits characterize many of these youths in early childhood; some have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Inept parenting transforms biologically based self-control difficulties into hostility and defiance.

A small percentage become recurrent offenders, who commit most of these crimes, and some enter a life of crime. As the  Biology and Environment  box above reveals, childhood-onset conduct problems are far more likely to persist than conduct problems that first appear in adolescence.

Factors Related to Delinquency.

In adolescence, the gender gap in physical aggression widens. Although girls account for about one in five adolescent arrests for violence, their offenses are largely limited to simple assault (such as pushing and spitting). Serious violent crime is mostly the domain of boys (Dahlberg & Simon,  2006 ). SES and ethnicity are strong predictors of arrests but only mildly related to teenagers’ self-reports of antisocial acts. The difference is due to the tendency to arrest, charge, and punish low-SES ethnic minority youths more often than their higher-SES white and Asian counterparts (Farrington,  2009 ; U.S. Department of Justice,  2010 ).


Delinquency—usually petty stealing and disorderly conduct—rises over early and middle adolescence and then declines. But a small percentage of young people engage in repeated, serious offenses and are at risk for a life of crime.

Difficult temperament, low intelligence, poor school performance, peer rejection in childhood, and association with antisocial peers are linked to chronic delinquency (Laird et al.,  2005 ). How do these factors fit together? One of the most consistent findings about delinquent youths is that their families are low in warmth, high in conflict, and characterized by harsh, inconsistent discipline and low monitoring (Barnes et al.,  2006 ; Capaldi et al., 2002a). Because marital transitions often contribute to family discord and disrupted parenting, boys who experience parental separation and divorce are especially prone to delinquency (Farrington,  2004 ). And youth crime peaks on weekdays between 2:00 and 8:00 P.M., when many teenagers are unsupervised (U.S. Department of Justice,  2010 ).

Our discussion on  page 259  in  Chapter 8  explained how ineffective parenting can promote and sustain children’s aggression, with boys—who are more active and impulsive—more often targets of parental anger, physical punishment, and inconsistency. When these child temperamental traits combine with emotionally negative, inept parenting, aggression rises sharply during childhood, leads to violent offenses in adolescence, and persists into adulthood (again, see the  Biology and Environment  box).

Teenagers commit more crimes in poverty-stricken neighborhoods with limited recreational and employment opportunities and high adult criminality (Leventhal, Duprere, & Brooks-Gunn,  2009 ). In such neighborhoods, adolescents have easy access to deviant peers, drugs, and firearms and are likely to be recruited into antisocial gangs, whose members commit the vast majority of violent delinquent acts. Furthermore, schools in these locales typically fail to meet students’ developmental needs (Chung, Mulvey, & Steinberg,  2011 ; Flannery et al.,  2003 ). Large classes, weak instruction, rigid rules, and reduced academic expectations and opportunities are associated with higher rates of lawbreaking, even after other influences are controlled.

Prevention and Treatment.

Because delinquency has roots in childhood and results from events in several contexts, prevention must start early and take place at multiple levels (Frey et al.,  2009 ). Positive family relationships, authoritative parenting, high-quality teaching in schools, and communities with healthy economic and social conditions go a long way toward reducing adolescent antisocial acts.

Lacking resources for effective prevention, many U.S. schools have implemented zero tolerance policies, which severely punish all disruptive and threatening behavior, major and minor, usually with suspension or expulsion. Yet often these policies are implemented inconsistently: Low-SES minority students are two to three times as likely to be punished, especially for minor misbehaviors (Goode & Goode,  2007 ; Reppucci, Meyer, & Kostelnik,  2011 ). No evidence exists that zero tolerance achieves its objective of reducing youth aggression and other forms of misconduct (Stinchcomb, Bazemore, & Riestenberg,  2006 ). To the contrary, some studies find that by excluding students from school, zero tolerance heightens high school dropout and antisocial behavior.

Treating serious offenders requires an intensive, often lengthy approach, also directed at the multiple determinants of delinquency. The most effective methods include training parents in communication, monitoring, and discipline strategies and providing youths with experiences that improve cognitive and social skills, moral reasoning, anger management, and other aspects of emotional self-regulation (DiBiase et al.,  2011 ; Heilbrun, Lee, & Cottle,  2005 ).

Yet even these multidimensional treatments can fall short if young people remain embedded in hostile home lives, antisocial peer groups, and fragmented neighborhoods. In a program called multisystemic therapy, counselors combined family intervention with integrating violent youths into positive school, work, and leisure activities and disengaging them from deviant peers. Compared with conventional services or individual therapy, the intervention led to greater improvement in parent–adolescent relationships and school performance, a dramatic drop in number of arrests, and—when participants did commit crimes—a reduction in their severity. Multisystemic therapy also helped limit family instability once youth offenders reached adulthood, as measured by involvement in civil suits over divorce, paternity, or child support (Borduin,  2007 ; Henggeler et al.,  2009 ; Sawyer & Borduin,  2011 ). Efforts to create nonaggressive environments—at the family, community, and cultural levels—are needed to help delinquent youths and to foster healthy development of all young people.


REVIEW Why are adolescent girls at greater risk for depression and adolescent boys at greater risk for suicide?

CONNECT Reread the sections on adolescent pregnancy and substance abuse in  Chapter 11 . What factors do these problems have in common with suicide and delinquency?

APPLY Zeke had been well-behaved in elementary school, but at age 13 he started spending time with the “wrong crowd.”At 16, he was arrested for property damage. Is Zeke likely to become a long-term offender? Why or why not?

image30 SUMMARY

Erikson’s Theory: Identity versus Role Confusion ( p. 402 )

· According to Erikson, what is the major personality achievement of adolescence?

· ● Erikson viewed identity as the major personality achievement of adolescence. Young people who successfully resolve the psychological conflict of identity versus role confusion construct a unified self-definition based on self-chosen values and goals.

Self-Understanding ( p. 402 )

Describe changes in self-concept and self-esteem during adolescence .

· ● Cognitive changes enable adolescents to develop more organized, consistent self- descriptions, with social, personal, and moral values as key themes.

· ● Self-esteem further differentiates and, for most adolescents, rises. Authoritative parenting and encouragement from teachers support positive self-esteem.

Describe the four identity statuses, along with factors that promote identity development .

· ● Researchers evaluate progress in identity development on two key criteria: exploration and commitment. Identity achievement (exploration followed by commitment to values, beliefs, and goals) and identity moratorium (exploration without having reached commitment) are psychologically healthy identity statuses. Long-term identity foreclosure (commitment without exploration) and identity diffusion (lack of both exploration and commitment) are related to adjustment difficulties.

· ● An information-gathering cognitive style, healthy parental attachment, interaction with diverse peers, close friendships, and schools and communities offering rich and varied opportunities promote healthy identity development. Supportive parents, peers, and schools can foster a strong, secure ethnic identity among minority adolescents, who often must overcome acculturative stress. A bicultural identity offers additional emotional and social benefits.


Moral Development ( p. 405 )

· Describe Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, and evaluate its accuracy .

· ● Kohlberg organized moral development into three levels, each with two stages. At the preconventional level, morality is externally controlled and actions are judged by their consequences; at the conventional level, conformity to laws and rules is regarded as necessary for positive human relationships and societal order; and at the postconventional level, morality is defined by abstract, universal principles.

· ● A reexamination of Kohlberg’s stages suggests that moral maturity can be found at Stages 3 and 4; few people attain the post-conventional level. Because situational factors influence moral judgments, Kohlberg’s stages are best viewed as loosely organized and overlapping.

· ● Contrary to Gilligan’s claim, Kohlberg’s theory does not underestimate the moral maturity of females but instead taps both justice and caring orientations.

· ● Compared with children, teenagers display more subtle reasoning about conflicts between personal choice and community obligation and are increasingly aware of the moral implications of following social conventions.

Describe influences on moral reasoning and its relationship to moral behavior .

· ● Factors contributing to moral maturity include warm, rational child-rearing practices, education level, and peer discussions of moral issues. In village societies, where moral cooperation is based on direct relations between people, moral reasoning rarely moves beyond Kohlberg’s Stage 3. In collectivist cultures, moral dilemma responses are more other- directed than in Western societies.

· ● The connection between mature moral reasoning and action is only modest. Moral behavior is also influenced by empathy and guilt, temperament, history of morally relevant experiences, and moral identity. Although formal religious involvement declines in adolescence, most religiously affiliated teenagers are advantaged in moral values and behavior.

· ● Researchers favoring a pragmatic approach to morality assert that moral maturity varies depending on context and motivations.

Gender Typing ( p. 414 )

How does gender typing change in adolescence?

· ● Some research suggests that adolescence is a time of gender intensification, in which gender stereotyping of attitudes and behavior increases, though evidence is mixed.

The Family ( p. 414 )

Discuss changes in parent–child and sibling relationships during adolescence .

· ● In their quest for autonomy, adolescents rely more on themselves and less on parents for decision making. Teenagers deidealize their parents, often questioning parental authority. Warm, supportive parenting, appropriate demands for maturity, and consistent monitoring predict favorable outcomes.

· ● Sibling influence declines as adolescents separate from the family and turn toward peers. Still, attachment to siblings remains strong for most young people.

Peer Relations ( p. 417 )

· Describe adolescent friendships, peer groups, and dating relationships and their consequences for development .

· ● Adolescent friendships are based on intimacy, mutual understanding, and loyalty and contain more self-disclosure. Girls place greater emphasis on emotional closeness, boys on shared activities and accomplishments.

· ● Online communication supports closeness with existing friends. Though online communication with strangers provides some teenagers with vital social support, it also poses risks. High social media use is linked to unsatisfying face-to-face social experiences.

· ● Adolescent friendships—when not characterized by relational aggression or attraction to antisocial behavior—promote self-concept, perspective taking, identity, and the capacity for intimate relationships. They also help young people deal with stress and can foster improved attitudes toward and involvement in school.

· ● Adolescent peer groups are organized into cliques, particularly important to girls, and crowds, which grant teenagers an identity within the larger social structure of the school. With interest in dating, mixed-sex cliques increase in importance. Both cliques and crowds diminish as teenagers settle on personal values and goals.

· ● Intimacy in dating relationships lags behind that between friends. Positive relationships with parents and friends contribute to secure romantic ties.

Problems of Development ( p. 421 )

Describe factors related to adolescent depression and suicide.

· ● Depression is the most common psychological problem of adolescence, with girls at greater risk in industrialized nations. Combinations of biological and environmental factors are implicated, including heredity, maladaptive parenting, a learned-helpless attributional style, and negative life events.

· ● The suicide rate increases sharply at adolescence. Although teenage girls make more unsuccessful suicide attempts, boys account for more deaths. Teenagers at risk for suicide may be withdrawn but more often are antisocial. Family turmoil is common in the backgrounds of suicidal adolescents.

· Discuss factors related to delinquency .

· ● Delinquency rises over early and middle adolescence and then declines. But only a few teenagers are serious repeat offenders—usually boys with a childhood history of conduct problems.

· ● A family environment low in warmth, high in conflict, and characterized by inconsistent discipline and low monitoring is consistently related to delinquency, as are poverty-stricken neighborhoods with high crime rates and ineffective schools. image32

Important Terms and Concepts

acculturative stress ( p. 406 )

autonomy ( p. 415 )

bicultural identity ( p. 406 )

clique ( p. 419 )

conventional level ( p. 408 )

crowd ( p. 419 )

ethnic identity ( p. 406 )

gender intensification ( p. 414 )

identity ( p. 402 )

identity achievement ( p. 403 )

identity diffusion ( p. 403 )

identity foreclosure ( p. 403 )

identity moratorium ( p. 403 )

identity versus role confusion ( p. 402 )

moral identity ( p. 411 )

postconventional level ( p. 408 )

preconventional level ( p. 407 )

image33 milestones Development in Adolescence


Early Adolescence: 11–14


· ■ If a girl, reaches peak of growth spurt. ( 363 )

· ■ If a girl, adds more body fat than muscle. ( 363  364 )

· ■ If a girl, starts to menstruate. ( 366 )

· ■ If a boy, begins growth spurt. ( 363 )

· ■ If a boy, starts to ejaculate seminal fluid. ( 366 )

· ■ Is likely to be aware of sexual orientation. ( 376 )

· ■ If a girl, motor performance increases gradually, leveling off by age 14. ( 364 )

· ■ Reacts more strongly to stressful events; shows heightened sensation-seeking and risk-taking behavior. ( 367  368 )


· ■ Gains in hypothetico-deductive reasoning and propositional thought. ( 383  384 )

· ■ Gains in scientific reasoning—coordinating theory with evidence—on complex, multivariable tasks. ( 385 )

· ■ Becomes more self-conscious and self-focused. ( 386  387 )

· ■ Becomes more idealistic and critical. ( 387 )

· ■ Metacognition and self-regulation continue to improve. (367–368, 385)


· ■ Self-concept includes abstract descriptors unifying separate personality traits, but these are not interconnected and often contradictory. ( 402 )

· ■ In striving for autonomy, spends less time with parents and siblings, more time with peers. ( 416  417 )

· ■ Friendships decline in number and are based on intimacy, mutual understanding, and loyalty. ( 417 )

· ■ Peer groups become organized around same-sex cliques. ( 419 )

· ■ In high schools with complex social structures, cliques with similar values form crowds. ( 419 )

image35 SHAPE \* MERGEFORMAT image36

Middle Adolescence: 14–16


· ■ If a girl, completes growth spurt. ( 363 )

· ■ If a boy, reaches peak of growth spurt. ( 363 )

· ■ If a boy, voice deepens. ( 366 )

· ■ If a boy, adds muscle while body fat declines. ( 363 )

· ■ If a boy, motor performance improves dramatically. ( 364 )

· ■ May have had sexual intercourse. ( 375 )


· ■ Continues to improve in hypothetico-deductive reasoning and propositional thought. ( 383  384 )

· ■ Continues to improve in scientific reasoning, following a similar sequential order on different types of tasks. ( 385  386 image37

· ■ Becomes less self-conscious and self-focused. ( 386  387 )

· ■ Improves in decision making. ( 387  388 )


· ■ Combines features of the self into an organized self-concept. ( 402 )

· ■ Self-esteem differentiates further and tends to rise. ( 402  403 )

· ■ In most cases, begins to move from “lower”to “higher”identity statuses. ( 404 )

· ■ Increasingly emphasizes ideal reciprocity and societal laws as the basis for resolving moral dilemmas. ( 408  409 )

· ■ Engages in more subtle reasoning about conflicts between moral, social-conventional, and personal-choice issues. ( 409  410 image38

· ■ Mixed-sex cliques become common. ( 420 )

· ■ Has probably started dating. ( 420 )

Late Adolescence: 16–18


· ■ If a boy, completes growth spurt. ( 363 )

· ■ If a boy, gains in motor performance continue. ( 364 image39


· ■ Continues to improve in metacognition, scientific reasoning, and decision making. (385–386, 387–388)



· ■ Self-concept emphasizes personal and moral values. ( 402 )

· ■ Continues to construct an identity, typically moving to higher identity statuses. ( 404  405 )

· ■ Continues to advance in maturity of moral reasoning. ( 408  409 )

· ■ Cliques and crowds decline in importance. ( 420 )

· ■ Seeks psychological intimacy in romantic ties, which last longer. ( 420  421 image41

Note: Numbers in parentheses indicate the page or pages on which each milestone is discussed.