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Teens becoming self-centered

Dr. Paul Schwartz

Why does your adolescent, who just a few years ago never cared what he looked like when he left the house, never pass up a mirror without making a major style adjustment? What happened to the little girl who talked to you about everything, but who now feels nobody, especially you, could possibly understand what she is going through? When did the discovery of a Monday morning pimple become justification to stay home from school?

These are all common scenarios that occur as a byproduct of your adolescent's newfound advanced thinking ability and the new form of self-centeredness or egocentrism that accompanies it.

Most parents are acutely aware of how self-absorbed their young children can be. As a child grows into adolescence, however, this egocentrism becomes very different from it was in childhood. Unlike the egocentrism of preschoolers, which is based on concrete problems, adolescent egocentrism concerns more abstract thoughts and problems.

One aspect of the newly developed thinking ability of adolescence is called metacognition, the capacity to think about thinking. The development of metacognition allows the adolescent to not only think about his or her own thoughts, but also to think about the thoughts of others. When this ability first develops the adolescent has difficulty differentiating between his own thoughts and the thoughts of others.

This newly developed way of thinking includes the capacity to engage in introspection and the resulting, increased self-consciousness. This enhanced way of thinking plays an important role in self-examination, a major developmental task of this period and an important skill that helps the adolescent to develop a clear, consistent identity. This advanced introspection leads the adolescent toward long periods of self-absorption, which in the long run serves him well with the tasks of identity development and decision-making, but often results in initial egocentric problems.

What makes up the adolescent's mind

According to noted psychologist David Elkind, adolescent egocentrism has two distinct components: the imaginary audience and the personal fable.

The imaginary audience is a result of the adolescent's limited capacity to differentiate between their thinking about themselves and their thinking about the thoughts of others. Simply stated ? the adolescent is so consumed with her own thoughts she believes every one else must be as consumed with them as well. This phenomenon makes the adolescent excruciatingly self-conscious.

One morning when my son Jesse was about 14, we had both overslept and I had to drive him to school. In our rush to get ready he yelled to me "Where are my Cavariccis?" (The current fad in adolescent pants). We finally found them wet in the washing machine. When I asked him to find some other pants, he looked at me as if I was from another planet, telling me unequivocally that to go to school in other than his "Cavariccis" would be tantamount to social ostracism. Do you know how long it takes for a pair of pants to dry when you are waiting? Adolescents are like imaginary stage performers exaggerating the extent to which they believe others think about them, feeling each day they are going out to meet a captive audience. It is an "audience" as the adolescent feels they are the center of attention. It is "imaginary" as others are not as preoccupied with the adolescents as they believe.

The excessive need for privacy during adolescence is one way the youngster gets out of the limelight and the self-scrutiny, criticism and even shame that this imaginary audience sometimes produces. Remember your early adolescence ? how long did you prepare for your audience, and what couldn't you leave the house without? As David Elkind states, "Gatherings of adolescents are unique in the sense that each young person is simultaneously an actor and an audience to others."

The other egocentric concept is the personal fable, which compliments the imaginary audience. If this imaginary audience is so consumed with how this young person looks and acts then there must be something very unique and special about them. If there wasn't, then why would everyone be so interested in them? The adolescent's belief in his own immortal, personal uniqueness and "specialness" is the personal fable.

This "personal fable" can be a source of anguish for the adolescent as she believes that no one could possibly ever have felt like she does similarly nor can anyone possibly understand her. The personal fable can also be a source of an over-exaggerated belief in ones own ability or future possibilities. An adolescent can be a professional ball player or rock musician or succeed anywhere ? because their lives embody some special story that is immortal, unique and heroic. The personal fable has also been useful in explaining the risk-taking behavior of adolescents such as unprotected sexual behavior, drug taking, driving too fast or while drunk despite a recognition of the potential consequences.

The personal fable embraces the belief that this can't possibly happen to me ? I'm too special. It's easy to see how "The imaginary audience" and the "personal fable" can explain much of the uniquely "crazy" behavior we see in adolescents. At this stage of development adolescents still have limited empathy ? the ability to put themselves in another persons shoes and compare another persons thoughts to their own. A large part of adolescence consists of developing the skills of empathy and adequate social perception.

The personal fable is reduced as adolescents develop intimate relationships, in these relationships they learn that what they are experiencing and feeling is not unique to them but is also experienced and felt by others.

The egocentrism of adolescence usually begins to decrease by around age 16, when the older adolescent gradually begins to separate their own perceptions from the perceptions of others. Not all adolescents succeed in dismantling the more negative aspects of adolescent egocentrism. I'm sure you all are familiar with adults who never left the adolescent phase of egocentrism behind and still act as if they are performing for an audience, and that the events in "their life" is more special and important than anyone else's.

Not all adolescent's experience these egocentric concepts to the same degree as others, but for those who do, how can you help your teen get through this normal developmental process?

The best way for you to help your child through this period is to remember your own adolescence and be as patient and empathetic as possible. Remember how difficult it was for you to make decisions. With the new found freedom and ability to make decisions comes the frightening possibility that the choices and decisions the adolescent is making is not the "right" one. Keep in mind prior to this time of life you made most if not all decisions for your child.

Although this new found thinking ability and the alternatives that now become possible can be very empowering and growth enhancing for your adolescent it can also create a lot of confusion. This could be the time when you share the feelings you had when faced with similar situations or embarrassing moments in your own adolescence. Don't communicate a dismissal attitude to your adolescent ? relating how easy it is for them now and how much more difficult it was for you. Avoid, "when I was your age . . . ." Be empathic, although the issue they are presenting may border on the ridiculous ? it is very real for your adolescent now as it was for you then. We can now look back on our adolescence and the inane behavior and exaggerated emotions we experienced as just that ridiculous, but retrospection takes the passage of time.

Have patience it will come ? for some it takes longer. I remember relating how I could never understand why my father and I had difficulty working together and didn't get along well during my adolescence, when my son become 14 ? I understood. Attempting to push your reality based perspective on your adolescent will only confirm for her that you "just don't understand" and break the often fragile bonds of communication that exist between parents and young people. Just listen ? keep in mind that what she is experiencing, as illogical and silly as it seems, is very real for her. Her feeling of being different and her need to be like everyone else and be accepted are the issues she is struggling with at this point in her life. As she experiences the ups and downs of adolescence, she will begin to realize that what she is thinking, feeling and experiencing is shared by others and not only by her.

We can't prevent our adolescents from experiencing the painful self-consciousness that comes with being a teenager or even the mistakes we would like to see them avoid, however the quality of the relationship between parents and adolescence and the support given by parents through this often difficult period can lead to greater reality based thinking and less egocentric behavior.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. His child behavior column appears each month in Capital District & Hudson Valley Parent magazine. He can be reached at editor@excitingread.com.

As a child grows into adolescence, however, this egocentrism becomes very different from what it was in childhood.

One aspect of the newly developed thinking ability of adolescence is called metacognition, the capacity to think about thinking. The development of metacognition allows the adolescent to not only think about his or her own thoughts, but also to think about the thoughts of others. When this ability first develops the adolescent has difficulty differentiating between his own thoughts and the thoughts of others.

This newly developed way of thinking includes the capacity to engage in introspection and the resulting, increased self-consciousness. This enhanced way of thinking plays an important role in self-examination, a major developmental task of this period and an important skill that helps the adolescent to develop a clear, consistent identity. This advanced introspection leads the adolescent toward long periods of self-absorption, which in the long run serves him well with the tasks of identity development and decision-making, but often results in initial egocentric problems.

Adolescents are like stage performers exaggerating the extent to which they believe others think about them, feeling each day they are going out to meet a captive audience.

Not all adolescents succeed in dismantling the more negative aspects of adolescent egocentrism. I'm sure you all are familiar with adults who never left the adolescent phase of egocentrism behind and still act as if they are performing for an audience, and that the events in "their life" is more special and important than anyone else's.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY. His child behavior column appears each month in Hudson Valley Parent magazine.


November 10, 2013 | 12:18 PM  
 
Excellent article. Its so hard to step back and remember they are teens and that "self" is for them the only thing that matters. I'm a grandmother and occasionally get angry and hurt at their behaviors, then I step back and remember that I am not the center of their world.
 
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