The adolescent – Social development

An adolescent’s social development is the path by which he or she becomes integrated into the community. One of the major factors in this development is the quality of the young individual’s relationship with parents or guardians. Usually the parent-child relationship is a reciprocal one, with give and take on both sides.

Only if both the adolescent and the parents respect the relationship can it be a good influence on the young person. Relationships in which one side dictates to or exploits the other are unlikely to help the adolescent develop in a balanced way. Some parents are autocratic and simply tell their children what to do. Others are authoritarian: the child or adolescent may comment but has no say in decision-making. Authoritative parents allow young people to discuss issues relevant to their behaviour and make their own decisions, although ultimate authority is retained by the parents.

Other possible parent-child relationships include the permissive, in which the child has the upper hand; and finally the laissez-faire, in which the young person may do exactly what he or she wants, often in total disregard of any parental (or anyone else’s) wishes. Evidence suggests that most authoritative parents try to legitimize their power stance by explaining to adolescents the reasons for their rules.

Their children tend to become self-confident, responsibly independent and high in self-esteem. They are likely to feel wanted by their parents, and to think them fair and reasonable. This kind of open and respectful parental relationship is strong and flexible enough to withstand the many conflicts that inevitably arise between the generations during adolescence. In contrast, authoritarian or autocratic parents see little need for communication with their offspring. Their children often turn out to be lacking in confidence and independence, and to have poor self-esteem.

These adolescents are also likely to be less creative, less inquiring and less flexible in approaching the problems they meet in their educational, social, working or personal life. They are also likely to think their parents’ rules wrong or unfair, because they were never satisfactorily explained. Permissive and laissez-faire parents, who, to varying degrees, neglect their growing children’s behaviour, are at the other end of the spectrum. They do not provide the framework and adult support that adolescents need. Their children tend to ‘do their own thing’. In some cases this leads to drinking, drug abuse or other socially deviant behaviour. Parents often try to excuse themselves from blame by saying they were giving their adolescent offspring freedom to express their individuality; but in fact they are avoiding their parental responsibility. Their children drift off into uncharted waters of social behaviour, because they have no parental model to guide them and no mature person to turn to for advice. Their behaviour will thus largely be determined by their peers.