Changes in a teen’s physical and cognitive development come with big changes in their relationships with family and friends. Family relationships are often reorganized during puberty. Teens want more independence and more emotional distance between them and their parents. A teen’s focus often shifts to social interactions and friendships. This includes same-sex friends, same-sex groups of friends, and boy/girl groups of friends. Sexual maturity triggers an interest in dating and sexual relationships. In this article, we explore teens and peer relationships as it relates to emotional growth concepts such as independence and identity.

Peer relationships are very influential in adolescence. During this time, when young people are developing autonomy from their parents, peers become a significant source of social and emotional support. The attitudes of adolescents’ friends can have both a positive and negative influence. Strong peer attachments can enhance a young person’s wellbeing while problems in peer relationships, such as bullying, can have significant psychological, physical, academic, and social-emotional consequences for both victims and perpetrators.

Social and emotional maturity are intertwined. Therefore, as teens’ emotional maturity increases their relationships with their peers change as they become more vulnerable and emotionally intimate with their peers. This increased vulnerability and intimacy require greater trust among peers. Thus, during the adolescent years, teen peer groups become increasingly important as teens experience more closeness in these friendships and more gratifying relationships with their peers as a result. Teens now turn to one another, instead of their families, as their first line of support during times of worry or upset. This increased reliance on friendships is yet another way that teens demonstrate their growing independence.

Because acceptance by a peer group becomes so important, teens may modify their speech, dress, behavior, choices, and activities in order to become more similar to their peers. This increased similarity among peers provides them sense security and affirms their acceptance into their chosen peer group. The developmental theorist, Erik Erickson, described this developmental step as a crisis of identity vs. identity confusion.

During the teen years, a new understanding of one’s self occurs. This may include changes in these self-concepts:

• Independence. This means making decisions for one’s self and acting on one’s own thought processes and judgment. Teens start to learn to work out problems on their own. With more reasoning and intuitive abilities, teens start to face new responsibilities and to enjoy their own thoughts and actions. Teens start to have thoughts and fantasies about their future and adult life (for example, college or job training, work, and marriage).

• Identity. This is defined as a sense of self or one’s personality. One of the key tasks of adolescence is to reach a sense of personal identity and a secure sense of self. A teen gets comfortable with and accepts a more mature physical body. They also learn to use their own judgment and make decisions on their own. As these things happen, the teen addresses his or her own problems and starts to develop a concept of himself or herself. Trouble developing a clear concept of self or identity occurs when a teen can’t resolve struggles about who he or she is as a physical, sexual, and independent person.

• Self-esteem. This is the feeling one has about one’s self. Self-esteem is determined by answering the question “How much do I like myself?” With the start of adolescence, a decrease in self-esteem is somewhat common. This is due to the many-body changes, new thoughts, and new ways of thinking about things. Teens are more thoughtful about who they are and who they want to be. They notice differences in the way they act and the way they think they should act. Once teens start thinking about their actions and characteristics, they are faced with how they judge themselves. Many teens place importance on attractiveness. When teens don’t think they are attractive, it often causes poor self-esteem. Typically, self-esteem increases once teens develop a better sense of who they are.

This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.