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Section 3 (Web #17)
Developmental Psychology of Adolescent Girls - Part I

Question 17 | Test | Table of Contents

Adolescents, particularly girls, have many identity conflicts and low self-esteem that may affect school success and development of a healthy identity. Many teenagers experience new societal expectations and responsibilities giving rise to identity confusion or internal conflicts that need to be resolved during adolescence. Their conflicts may become manifested as school discipline problems or lack of focus. Understanding the psychoanalytical process of early development such as, Oedipal complex, object relations theory and the individuation process may shed light on the origin of adolescent conflicts. Since self-esteem is at its lowest point during adolescence, presenting developmental theories, defining self-concept and self-esteem may assist in understanding this process. By being supportive and giving tasks and challenges that raise self-esteem, teenagers may be able to have success in school and develop self-motivation. In conclusion, a strong sense of 'self' is dependent on early relationships, gender differences, supportive environments and allowing adolescents to develop their own unique identity. Adolescent teenagers, who are undergoing the process of growth between childhood and maturity or adulthood, are usually thirteen to nineteen years of age.


During this period of adolescence, biological, emotional or psychosocial conflicts are evident. Adolescents are learning to cope with changes while concerned with self-image, self-esteem, social expectations and academic achievement. They are trying to find out: ( 1) who they are, separating from their families; ( 2) what they are about, their interests and personalities; and ( 3) where they are going, in order to discover their place in adult life (Santrock, 2001). Adolescents are also confronted with career choices, romantic entanglements and responsibilities that are new experiences in which they may make decisions or adjustments to attain their own identity or success. They have to make choices, be successful in school and manage life to attain a healthy identity at the end of adolescence. Identity refers to the sense of self or a consistent unique character over a period of time. The additional responsibilities and social expectations adolescents face may create conflicts for them to resolve, while defining their own identities.


Erikson(1968), a student of Freud and developmental theorist, depicted eight stages of life span development. His fifth psychosocial stage of human development. "Identity versus Identity Confusion", states that if adolescents are not given the chance to explore their new roles and cannot follow a future positive path, they may remain confused about their identity. Erikson (1968) included socio-emotional tasks into his developmental framework for each one of his stages. Adolescents need to be able to complete these tasks, find resolution to conflicts or adjustments and reach their unique identity. Santrock (2001) cited a study stating that adolescent girls and boys have a lower self-esteem from ages thirteen to eighteen and also that girls' self-esteem is twice as Iow as boys. Resolving conflicts during adolescence helps adolescents become who they will be, unique individuals, progressing further into higher developmental stages.


Understanding early development may also help clarify the adolescent process. During early childhood, as children separate from their parents, they experience the individuation process of becoming independent. For teenagers to become independent, their self-concept and self-esteem have to be strong to overcome adolescent conflicts.


Adolescent conflicts may manifest in discipline problems in school and an inability to focus on their studies or accomplish their school work. Self-esteem in this context refers to self-worth, self-respect or how one regards or feels about oneself; self-concept refers to perception about identity and achievements. Both play an integral part in the process of adolescent development. The critical time for development of girls starts in early childhood when they are separating from their female caretakers forming their own personalities. This process is the start of forming a 'self' or thinking of self as separate from the primary caretaker. The conflict for girls is to resolve this individuation or separating process while still trying to stay close or connected to their mothers. This process for boys is analogous to girls', but may not be as complex since the gender of the primary caretaker is usually different which makes the separation process easier.


The primary focus of this paper is to present a psychoanalytical perspective on conflicts of identity resolutions experienced by adolescents. There are two major psychoanalytical theories (Oedipal complex and object relations) on relationships:


( 1) the sexual gratification theory derived from Freud's Oedipal complex where the sexual drive of obtaining his or her parent is paramount and ( 2) the object relations theory which shifts the drive from sexual to relationships as objects other than self. In response to Freud's (1900) theory on sexual development and penis envy, the evolution of objects relations theory was developed to describe the individuation process. (Chodorow, 1978 and Josselson, 1989). Early relationships are important for identity development, as well as resolving conflicts. From a developmental perspective, this paper presents some of the roles that the environment, social expectations, self-concept, and self-esteem may play, as part of the individuation process which begins from early childhood. The major sections of this paper are: I Oedipal Theory and The Individuation Process. II Object Relations Theory and The Separation of Self, and III Self-Esteem and The Environment.


I Oedipal Theory and The Individuation Process

According to a psychoanalytical view of personality, the process of individuation is different for males and females as soon as the Oedipal stage begins. This stage is described by Freud (1900) as the Oedipal complex, taken from the Greek play written in the 5th century B.C. where king Oedipus kills his father and unknowingly weds his mother, introducing gender conflicts into social expectations or behavior. Developmental theories have roots in the Freudian theory of psychosexual development. One of the most critical milestones is the resolution of the Oedipal situation where a young male experiences feelings of dominion over a valued female (mother) and is threatened from a larger male (father) who owns the territory (home). Freud's normal male development is complete with the achievement of separation from the mother and proper channeling of aggression, competition and sexual impulses away from her, since she resides with the father. Once separated, Freud's male can be dominant and have a 'self' that is a model of self-reliance. In Freud's terms, a young male must learn to pull away from a woman to survive, denying any significant degree of his need for dependency or connection.


There are many conflicts and relational needs beginning to emerge throughout early childhood. Chodorow (1978) hypothesized that throughout life, the process of becoming an individual for girls, from age three and older, is more conflicting and complex than the simpler process for males. Chodorow (1978) describes a pre-Oedipal period (under three years old) as usually the same process for both males and females; however, as the Oedipal process begins from three to five years old, gender issues may arise. Traditional psychoanalytic theory describes the Oedipal complex as boys separating from their mothers, wanting to marry them, and conflicting with the role of their fathers; while, girls want to marry their fathers, conflicting with attachment feelings to their mothers. During the early 1900's, Freud viewed the female personality as a 'lesser sex', since neither a girl nor her mother had a penis, assuming she had envied her father's (Golombok & Fivush, 1994). The Oedipal complex, which was derived from the tragic Greek myth about king Oedipus killed by his son who eventually marries his mother, depicts the drive as male dominated which is repressed during elementary school years. Chodorow's (1978) theory, introducing the female perspective, challenges previous psychoanalytic thought by introducing same gender (mother and daughter) conflicts of separation, due to the difficulty of separation.


Chodorow's (1978) theory states that the female Oedipal complex is not simply a transfer of affection from mother to father but a process which entails a relational complexity in feminine self-definition or personality which is not characteristic of masculine self-definition or personality. She proposes that males may have curtailed relationships to their father (Oedipal complex), while competing for and being separate from their mother. Meanwhile, females are continuing relationships with both mothers and fathers and may be having problems separating from their same sex identities for their mothers (Chodorow, 1978). Chodorow (1978) describes a female Oedipal complex as girls who were mothered by women, who now come to experience themselves as less separate than boys, and have permeable ego boundaries when defining themselves in relation to others. "Boys may have to pull themselves away from their mothers, to identify themselves with their father, as males; whereas, girls may have no need for such drastic separation, since they identify with the person they love, their mother" (Josselson, 1987, p. 22).


As a result, girls may experience themselves as more fluid and continuous with others, not needing to erect the separate and explicit barriers that boys may need to build when establishing their rigid male boundaries (Josselson, 1987).


According to Josselson (1987), in the past, no one looked seriously at how identity was organized for a female. Her theory proposes that female developmental theory needs to encompass the multiplicity of female roles and complexities of their life. She states that classical psychoanalytical theory is grounded in genital inferiority of females and then deduces their moral inferiority. Gilligan (1982) challenged the traditional male models portraying female morality based on relationships as inferior. She states that their 'different voice' was more empathic, being person centered and less abstract than the male voice (Josselson, 1987). Gilligan (1982) concluded, from her extensive research on adolescent women, that males and females operate on different 'internal models', even though they both strive for healthy homes and families. These 'internal models' may create more conflicts for young girls.


In early development, both males and females form attachments to the primary caretaker and must undergo the process of separation. In viewing 'separation' as part of individuation, it is not complete without viewing the opposite, such as 'connection', 'attachment' or 'relationship'. According to Chodorow (1978), human development or 'identity' originates from early relational experiences in two ways: ( 1) as an inner experience of 'self' (a core of an infant's internal sensations and emotions); and ( 2) as a 'crystallization point' or 'feeling of self, around which a sense of identity will become established. The second origin of self is through a 'demarcation from the object world' where both ego boundaries (psycho and body) emerge from this process. Here, also, a sense of 'self' does not depend on the existence of another, but develops from a sense of basic relatedness as the mother and child lessen their dependency on each other with time (Chodorow, 1978). Also, Chodorow (1978) concludes that it is in this second way, of 'lessening dependency' between a female child and mother, where there may be potential individuation problems and conflicts, since this process may be difficult for both parent and child. Both identities (parent and child) may be modified by 'connection' and 'separation' interactions during the individuation process.


The process of individuation involves both a physical and mental or psychic separation (Blustein & Noumair, 1996). Some psychologists say that the changes and priorities of adolescent girls may be more complicated due to family or career choices affecting their lives and others (Chodorow, 1978; Gilligan, 1982; Josselson, 1987). Nelson (1996) states that when a girl's development of 'self' is viewed as occurring within the context of a 'relationship', then 'separation', followed by 'connection' or 'relationship' could be viewed as conflicting. Josselson's (1987) found that the developmental fact of continuity in relating to others, experienced by females, may explain why girls have a greater capacity for empathy and more preoccupation with relationships. She elaborates further stating that in adolescence, the struggle to further individuate recurs but 'separation' may be difficult, since there have been years of intense attachment.


From early childhood, girls experience the separation process of becoming an individual apart from their parents, showing a unique personality and skills. To become independent and separate, the internal view of girls or their self-esteem has to become strong and confident to be able to overcome the Oedipal complex, as well as, to follow a unique path in their evolution throughout their lifetime development. This critical time for female development is during the time young girls separate from their female caretakers to find a unique identity which starts from early childhood, forming a personality, then adolescence to young adulthood. The process is complex or difficult to determine what exactly is cause and effect. Female personality traits, such as caring in relationships, identity issues and separation of self, are part of the individuation process. During adolescence, young girls experience separating a sense of 'self' from their secure families which may cause many conflicts at this time. This is the beginning of a basic 'self' perception or self-concept introducing 'self' as separate from the primary caretaker. It is presumed more difficult for young girls to manage these conflicting identity feelings.


II Object Relations Theory and The Separation of Self

The object relational perspective was developed in the middle 1950's, in response to Freud's 'drive discharge' ego, by presenting an 'object seeking' drive in its place, where the objects are other people (Josselson, 1987; Tyson & Tyson, 1990). Nancy Chodorow (1989) examined the notion of a 'differentiated self' in context of object relations theory, referred to as an 'umbrella theory' for post-Freudian thought which includes ideas of other known theorists, such as Erikson (1968) and Kohut (1977). Nancy Chodorow pointed out that a basic tenet of object relations theory is how the formation of self involves the internalization of feeling about significant others and representation of experienced relations of others to the individual. Thus, referring to the object relations theory, the notion of 'self' also includes a relational component. The more secure the internal core sense of 'self' is, the less rigidly the individual needs to adhere to separateness or extreme autonomy in order to feel complete. The individuation process includes early relationships, separation and connection of the 'self', occurring initially, to the primary caretaker, and later on to 'significant others' throughout one's life. The process begins during early bonding with a primary caretaker, where there is a 'oneness' associated between a child's sense of who he or she is and the primary caretaker. As a child develops a sense of 'not me' from the primary caretaker; then, the sense of 'me' is beginning to get established (Chodorow, 1978). This begins the individuation process.


Chodorow (1978), a developmental theorist, states that the more secure an internal 'sense of self' is, the less rigidly the individual needs to adhere to separateness and extreme autonomy in order to feel complete. Chodorow's (1978) theory states that as toddlers learn to differentiate themselves from their mothers, and if the mothers allows them an independence within a supportive structure, they will learn to allow a 'sense of self' or individuality to be established without too many ego boundary problems. She states that during the first two years of life, a person's core 'sense of self is not gender dependent. The separation process with same sex persons (mother and daughter) is different than with mother and son, since women experience the separation from their mother differently due to gender (Chodorow, 1978). During the individuation process, as a child becomes a separate 'self' within the first two years, gender identity is also established. A child becomes aware of their genitals and whether they are 'girls' or 'boys' via exploration, their environment, parents and socialization.


According to Josselson (1987), object relations theory may have been an opportunity for understanding female development, rather than having 'objects' or people used only for male drive gratification. Josselson (1987) believes that traditional male identity formation does not apply for females, since social roles or identities for girls may be more complex. Chodorow (1989) claims that generally young girls have more problems with separation. She states that boys struggle with relationships when trying to establish 'connections'. Nelson's (1996) study found that not only females have a need to develop a relational competence; but also males may have a need to secure a strong sense of 'self' and that a relational model of counseling could apply to men as well. She claims that the relational model of processing could apply to both genders and that relationships become an important goal of human development as both men and women develop families.


Nelson (1996) states that the notion of the 'differentiated self', in an object relations context, includes the self with internalization feelings about significant others and representations of experienced reactions of others to the individual. She concludes that when counseling with a girl, one must be aware of the delicate balance between her need for 'connection' and 'boundary' and how it may affect her self-esteem. As for boys, self-esteem may develop as they become assertive and stand up for themselves; while for girls, relationships and helping friends may add to their self-esteem and empathy skills (Nelson, 1996). Nelson (1996) summarizes that it is important to note how girls and boys may experience different developmental challenges which need different styles of interaction from professionals and how 'separation' alone may not be the primary goal of development for males or females. The need for 'connection' is just as important and may motivate both genders into having relationships.


Josselson (1987), a prominent theorist who emphasized female/male differences, believes that girls have difficulty separating from mothers, since they relate or identify with them. She states boys separate with less difficulty and suppress relational needs and capacities more than girls. In her opinion, the 'self' of a teenage girl may be more defined 'in relationship' than the 'self' of a boy. She states that as males develop, their ego boundaries and societal expectations for their advancement or career are clearer, since being married with children are not as disputed or devalued (Josselson, 1987). As females develop, they have to cope with the emotional choices of having children or a career, while males don't have to choose, since they may have both. For females, these choices are not simple; since complex decisions affecting not only themselves, but others as well, must be made. Their internalized object-relational structure becomes more complex as girls develop and are exposed to more ongoing issues related to gender differences, adolescence and career choices (Chodorow, 1989). From an object relations perspective, a basic sense of 'self' for females is via 'connection' to the world; while for males, a basic sense of 'self' is 'separate' from the world. Self-esteem also plays a role in resolving these conflicts during the development of a basic sense of 'self'.

- Powell, K. (2004). Developmental Psychology of Adolescent Girls: Conflicts and Identity Issues. Education, 125(1).

The Role of Self-Esteem in the Development of Psychiatric Problems: a Three-Year Prospective Study in a Clinical Sample of Adolescents

- Henriksen, I. O., Yen, I., Indredavik, M. S., Stenseng, F. (2017). The Role of Self-Esteem in the Development of Psychiatric Problems: a Three-Year Prospective Study in a Clinical Sample of Adolescents. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 11, 68. doi:10.1186/s13034-017-0207-y












Reviewed 2023

The Perfect Storm: A Developmental-Sociocultural Framework for the
Role of Social Media in Adolescent Girls' Body Image Concerns and Mental Health

- Choukas-Bradley, S., Roberts, S. R., Maheux, A. J., & Nesi, J. (2022). The Perfect Storm: A Developmental-Sociocultural Framework for the Role of Social Media in Adolescent Girls' Body Image Concerns and Mental Health. Clinical child and family psychology review, 25(4), 681–701.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
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Cui, L., Criss, M. M., Ratliff, E., Wu, Z., Houltberg, B. J., Silk, J. S., & Morris, A. S. (2020). Longitudinal links between maternal and peer emotion socialization and adolescent girls’ socioemotional adjustment. Developmental Psychology, 56(3), 595–607.

Murray, R. M., Lucibello, K. M., Pila, E., Maginn, D., Sandmeyer-Graves, A., & Sabiston, C. M. (2021). “Go after the fatty”: The problematic body commentary referees hear—and experience—in adolescent girls’ sport. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology.

Niileksela, C. R., Ghosh, A., & Janis, R. A. (2021). Dynamic changes in generalized anxiety and depression during counseling. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 68(1), 112–124.

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Shikatani, B., Fredborg, B. K., Cassin, S. E., Kuo, Janice R., & Antony, M. M. (Apr 2019). Acceptability and perceived helpfulness of single session mindfulness and cognitive restructuring strategies in individuals with social anxiety disorder: A pilot study. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 51(2), 83-89.

What does Chodorow state concerning a secure, internal 'sense of self'? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 18
Table of Contents