Though bitter words are exchanged between Millennials and Baby Boomers on a nauseatingly regular basis, these entitled basement-dwellers and the hippie sell-outs that spawned them often agree on one thing: Teenagers are the total worst. This bizarre habit of adults picking on the fickle moods of teens and dismissing their values as transitory is so pervasive that some consider it one of the inevitable rituals of growing up and out of one’s teenage self. But research on the development of social and romantic relationships among adolescents and teens indicates that there is less “growing out of” a behavior than we may think.
“The key here is that even though all adolescents can be disagreeable at times, there is a subset of them who don’t seem to mature or adapt their behavior to resolve conflict.”
A study this year in Personal and Individual Differences examined a decade’s worth of data on a diverse group of 164 teenagers to see if “disagreeableness” persisted from adolescence into adulthood. While the term “disagreeable teenager” is redundant to those who are unsympathetic to the young people navigating that nightmarish limbo between childhood and adulthood, the study used several observed and reported characteristics like rudeness, argumentativeness, and high-pressure persuasion tactics to determine who was disagreeable. The data here is unique because it accounts for both self-reported characteristics and characteristics reported by the best friends and romantic partners of the study participants. The study revealed that those who are disagreeable as friends and partners during youth are more likely to remain disagreeable into early adulthood. “The key here is that even though all adolescents can be disagreeable at times, there is a subset of them who don’t seem to mature or adapt their behavior to resolve conflict,” says Dr. Christopher Hafen, a University of Virginia research scientist who co-authored the study.
A perhaps more disturbing finding is that the people in the disagreeable subset reported that they indeed had relationship conflicts but did not rate these relationships negatively overall, while their friends and romantic partners did so overwhelmingly. The study calls this “relationship blindness,” and the authors warn it can be detrimental to developing better relationships. “Adopting this relationship blindness approach to social relationships dramatically reduces their opportunity to alter their behavior,” the researchers write, “potentially condemning them to the long-term pattern of negative interactions observed in this study,” The particular study did not hypothesize about how kids develop relationship blindness, but parenting styles may play a significant role.
Another study at UVA on the same data set found that parenting affects kids’ ability to develop healthy levels of both autonomy and relatedness. Loosely defined, autonomy is the extent to which a person’s decisions and actions are their own, while relatedness is the extent to which a person understands their experiences and decisions as shared with others and therefore impacting others. “If you can stand up for yourself but are really harsh,” Dr. Barbara Oudekerk, who worked on the study, explains, “then your relationship isn’t going to last very long. And if you’re really nice all the time but can’t stand up for yourself, it might last but it won’t be a healthy relationship.” A healthier reaction to conflict, in contrast, will demonstrate a stronger balance of both. “By showing both autonomy and relatedness, youth can stand up for themselves in a way that shows collaboration and warmth,” she says.
The study also found that both autonomy and relatedness are profoundly influenced by the psychological control tactics used by their parents. "Psychological control includes tactics like ignoring kids or making them feel guilty if they don’t think or behave a certain way," Oudekerk says. "These are tactics that really undermine kids’ abilities to think through their actions and decisions to see if they’re actually good for them." It doesn’t mean these youth are utterly incapable of social interactions but that the resulting relationships are less healthy. "You might learn to stick up for yourself eventually, but might still think that in close relationships you have to be cold or dismissive of others in order to stick up for yourself." Teens who experienced psychological control early in adolescence had lower levels of autonomy and relatedness, and the levels got progressively worse over time. The adults so fond of dismissing difficult teens might miss the irony that this is a distrusting and non-collaborative approach to their development.
There is abundant research that suggests that the over-cultivation of self-esteem, that supposedly Golden Ticket to happy youth and adulthood, is actually profoundly harmful to the development of healthy relationships.
With that said, we should be cautious before completely unleashing adolescents from psychological control and entrusting them as sole arbiters of their own social and romantic destinies. When I ask Hafen about possibilities for why disagreeable adolescents stayed that way, he says that certain kinds of self-focused parenting might be at play. “One possibility is that the parenting message of being ‘who you are’ is strong with these kids’ parents and the message gets distorted to ‘Don’t listen to other people,’” Hafen says. There is abundant research that suggests that the over-cultivation of self-esteem, that supposedly Golden Ticket to happy youth and adulthood, is actually profoundly harmful to the development of healthy relationships. One oft-cited study in Psychological Bulletin from 2004 concluded: “When people have self-validation goals, they react to threats in these domains in ways that undermine learning, relatedness, autonomy and self-regulation, and over time, mental and physical health.”
Dr. Kristin Neff is hopeful about the possibilities for correcting negative relationship behaviors through a self compassion-based model of relationship development, which more gently reacts to and conceives of the self without excusing one’s behavior. “Self-esteem is basically an unwinnable game because it requires us to always be special and better than others. It is a treadmill that we can’t get off of,” she says. In a 2003 study in Self & Identity, Neff describes self-compassion as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, non-judgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience.” This emphasis on both external and internal experiences contrasts with self-esteem that accounts only for one’s own personal ascent to greatness.
Studies of adolescents and self-compassion are in their infancy so none have yet specifically addressed their social and romantic relationships, but one study from earlier this year in the Journal of Positive Psychology did find a link between higher levels of self-compassion and emotional well-being in adolescents. Though levels of self-compassion come with all the limitations and biases of self-reporting, a study on adult romantic relationships found that people who reported higher levels of self-compassion had partners who reported that they were more considerate, warm, and caring.
Though none of these studies suggest that cultivating strong social and romantic skills is especially easy once behavior patterns are established, there are some silver linings that suggest improvement is impossible. In the study of autonomy and relatedness, the research showed that, when the study participants had romantic partners at age 18 with whom they could argue for their own opinions, they were able to improve their ability to communicate with friends over time. There is sufficient evidence that, while these behaviors are stubborn, they are not completely unchangeable.
It is promising that more research on adolescent development is being done at all after years of teen combativeness and volatility have closed people's minds to the potential of the life stage. An over-emphasis on high self-esteem has had its share of harms, but it has also made the development of a child's self-determination and self-perception a parenting priority. Parents are more cognizant than ever of their children's autonomy, they just need to use more nuanced approaches to help their kids cultivate it in a way that will make them successful in relating to others. Whether or not the great national pastime of dismissing teens as immature nuisances will end, however, remains to be seen.
The Science of Relationships examines the sexual, romantic, and platonic connections that we all share.