The research into relationships in adolescence

Some would argue that adolescence is a period of stress, such as Smith and Crawford (1960) who found that over 60% of high school students had had suicidal thoughts. Assuming that this is the case, then adolescents need emotional support, particularly from their peers and parents. However, since conflict between children and their parents is more likely to occur during adolescence (Santrock, 2001), peers may be a better alternative, since they offer social support without the commitment that comes with parents (Blos, 1967). In fact, it could be that such relationships with peers are necessary for healthy development.

Supporting this view, Kirschler et al. (1991) found that those who had good peer relationships during adolescence also had good relationships in adulthood, and Steinberg and Silverberg (1986) found that the formation of peer relationships is a necessary step in breaking away from one’s parents and gaining autonomy. However, this may not be entirely accurate, as it may be that parents still play an important role throughout adolescence: although adolescence may be a time of finding an identity and gaining independence, parents may still be there to offer support in times of stress (Steinberg, 1990).

In fact, Frey and Rothlisberger (1996) found in a study of Swiss adolescents that that peers were of little help when it came to stressful times, and that mothers in particular were more receptive to the emotional needs of their children. This approach may, however, be criticised for a lack of cultural validity. It is only individualist cultures in particular who value the ideas of autonomy, with collectivist cultures valuing togetherness and group identity.

This renders to the need for autonomy obsolete, indicating that peer relationships are in fact not a requisite for healthy development; or at least not for the aforementioned purposes. Nonetheless Marcia and Erikson would believe that they are still issues. The cognitive view given by Piaget on the matter of why we require support from peer and parental relationships throughout adolescence is that formal operational thought is gained during adolescence. As a result, we think about ourselves and our future identities more, and as this is a new way of thinking, it may appear quite daunting at first.

Research evidence supports this, for example, Coleman (1961) found that cliques in adolescence provide a sense of identity separate from one’s parents, and simply being in the clique and around other similar people gives a higher sense of self-esteem. This is especially significant, as as many as 90% of adolescents identify as belonging to a peer group, as found in a study of Italian 16-18 year olds. However, in contrast with this explanation, it has been found by Dasen (1994) that only a third of adults obtain formal operational thought, so it may not be a sufficient explanation of why adolescents feel the need to gain a sense of identity.

It has even been argued that adolescence is a ‘creation of the 20th century’ and is, in reality, not stressful at all, indicating that the reasons for developing different types of relationships are different. While it may be true that adolescence has only been seen as a stressful experience since the 20th century, it does not mean that there is no stress during the transition between childhood and adulthood.

Another explanation of why adolescents feel the need to break away from their parents and mix more with their peers could be that they are under more pressure to conform to social norms (Brown, 1982), or that they begin to comprehend the fact that they are becoming adults, and feel the need to act accordingly by mimicking adult behaviour, such as drinking (Jessor and Jessor, 1977). However, this again raises the question as to whether or not such an explanation is extrapolatable to other cultures, or even within cultures. Beaumrind (1971) classified four types of parenting styles based on the demandingness and responsiveness of the parents.

Many studies have found that adolescents brought up with authoritative parenting (high demandingness and responsiveness) may experience positive effects on many levels, and as a result the acquisition of independence may be much smoother and with less conflict. This may offer an explanation for the discrepancies in research findings, such that for some parental relationships are fundamental to be able to cope through adolescence, and for some the stress may not be high enough for such high importance to be placed on them.

Conversely, conflict with parents and refuge in peers may be overexaggerated ideas. Durkin (1997) suggest that it is important to bear in mind that conflicts occur between and individuals who share a house, and that conflict is a part of social life. Discord may lead to negotiation over rights and not necessarily relationship breakdown, and this may be the phenomenon seen in adolescent relationship behaviour.

In support of this, a study of adolescent girls found that most of them said that the person they felt closest to was their mother, and minor quarrels often occurred but as an attempt to change the power balance between the two rather than a separation (Apter, 1990). But, this study was carried out with a relatively small sample size of 130 people, all of whom were from the USA and Britain, so the results may not be easily generalised to other populations; but it is nevertheless a demonstration of the principle mentioned above.

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