The primary task of adolescence is to build one’s identity, which includes social and moral development. Social development explains your daughter’s increasing interest in spending time with her peers. During this period, teenagers look to each other for clarification of their values, which helps them individuate (separate) from their family. Much of the classic discussion about adolescence centered around Erik Erikson’s theory of psychological development. According to Erikson, the work of adolescence is “identity vs. identity diffusion,” which, in plain talk, means, “Who am I, uniquely?”

teen development

Traditional psychological theory defines the stages of boys’ growth and development and attempts to fit girls into the same classifications. Until the early 1980s, psychological theory was based exclusively on studies of males. In The Philosophy of Moral Development, psychologist Laurence Kohlberg applied Jean Piaget’s “preoperational/concrete/ formal” distinctions to create a stage theory for the development of moral thinking. However, he built his theory with a narrow view of moral reasoning because he interviewed only male subjects.

Gender is an element of identity that affects an overall sense of self. Stereotypes based on gender can put young women at risk for low self-esteem. As teenage girls worry about how others view them and experience silencing from adults and their peers, they get the message that they shouldn’t speak their minds, and girls stop expressing many honest feelings for fear of not being accepted. They may continue to talk a lot, but often they express what they think they ought to say.

In early adolescence, girls begin to lose the ability to trust what they know. Carol Gilligan, a student of Kohlberg’s, found that at age nine most girls were able to express their feelings and opinions to family and friends. But by age 12 and 13, many were unable to identify and talk about their feelings and subsumed their “voice,” in favor of acting in what is considered appropriate gender-role behavior. In her groundbreaking book In a Different Voice, Gilligan explains, “Men think if they know themselves they’ll know women. Women think if only they know others, they’ll come to know themselves.”

When theories are based on men only, women’s development may look “abnormal.” Gilligan disagreed with Kohlberg’s assessment in which he scored women lower or less morally developed than men. She concluded that rather than following rigid rules, women tend to think more about acting in a caring manner, about how their actions affect others. Gilligan determined that women are more likely to consider their obligations to others in making moral decisions, and men are more likely to consider abstract principles of fairness. She believes that women develop in a way that focuses on connection with others, which includes thinking about oneself and the community (social environment) in which one lives. Their approach to decision making considers their responsibilities to others. Women and men may be different in how they approach problems and solutions, but women’s approach is certainly not inferior.

teen girl

Jenna, a 15-year-old, was asked by her father whether she thought that stealing was wrong. After a few minutes of silence, Jenna responded, “I’m really not sure; it depends on the situation.” She added, “If my baby was starving and needed food, I can imagine shoplifting, if I thought that I wasn’t hurting the owner of the store.” When we think about the context, Jenna’s answer becomes a more thoughtful and sophisticated response.

Mental health professionals now question past assumptions in the context of female adolescent development. Many believe that the task of separation and identity must be redefined to address the importance of relationships in the lives of girls and women. Relationships are part of the strength women have and bring into adulthood. Connecting is something most girls and women do well, and this skill serves them in many ways, as long as they don’t give themselves away in the process.

Given the importance of relationships in the lives of girls, and based on our research, adolescents don’t need to separate from their parents. Rather, teens need to renegotiate their relationship with their parents, while preserving a deep sense of connection. Girls can individuate within the context of a loving family.

When you consider the physical changes of puberty, combined with the rapid development of the brain, psychological challenges for teenage girls are daunting. It’s no wonder your daughter vacillates between “Mom, I hate you” and “Mom, you’re the best” within the span of an hour. As one father said, “It’s a roller-coaster ride, so I fasten my seat belt and brace myself for the ups and downs.”