Who teens rely on for help may predict when they reach milestones of adulthood.
Moving out, getting a job, and meeting the responsibilities of daily life are generally seen as key markers of becoming an independent adult.
But in order to reach these milestones of independence, research shows it may actually be important for teens to learn how to first practice skills of dependence, such as learning to rely on others for help.
For many young adults, a natural developmental struggle occurs during adolescence between dependence and independence in social relationships. As they get older, teens begin to desire more independence from their parents while also seeking greater involvement in their peer relationships.
Although relying more on friends during the teen years is quite typical, doing so in certain situations can sometimes become problematic. For example, when teens begin turning to friends to help with serious problems, friends, though well-meaning, may not be the best sources of support.
This may be for the simple reason that teens’ friends are still exploring who they are and may not yet have the knowledge or experience to be as helpful as adults. Friends may be better able to help with particular problems when they are, say, 18, as compared to when they are 13.
This idea was supported in research conducted by my colleagues and I that examined how willingness to seek help from others during adolescence predicted later examples of adult independence behaviors. In a sample of 184 teenagers studied over a period of 12 years, we found that not only whoteens asked for help, but also when they asked were critical to understanding the teens’ independence in their mid-20s.
The study examined teens’ willingness to ask for help from three key relationship partners at three key time points: in early adolescence, late adolescence, and early adulthood. We examined their willingness to ask for help from their mothers at ages 13 and 18, their best friends at ages 13, 18, and 21, and their romantic partners at ages 18 and 21.
We found that teens who were more willing to ask for help from their mothers at age 13, their best friends at age 18, and their romantic partners at age 21, were all more likely to show evidence of different types of independence behaviors at age 25. The willingness to ask for help from these partners at these times predicted independence behaviors such as greater financial responsibility and success, current employment, and attaining a higher level of education.
Two psychological theories can help put these results into context. For example, attachment theory suggests that the ability to establish healthy dependence with a trusted person facilitates exploration of independence in the larger world.
Furthermore, focal theory suggests it is beneficial for teens to focus attention on different relationships at different ages, in part so that their psychological resources for managing relationships are not depleted by attempts to manage too many issues or relationships at one time.
Indeed, there is evidence that having an attachment figure that is able to provide support aids exploration and independence both in childhood and adulthood, with parents, friends, and romantic partners typically serving as such attachment figures. Importantly, research has suggested that attachment may be transferred to different relationships across adolescence, from parents to peers, and then from peers to romantic partners as teens get older.
Thus, leaning first more on parents for help, then on friends, and then on romantic partners as teens get older makes sense when considering that these relationships are likely characterized by greater trust and intimacy at different points of adolescence.
Moreover, parents may be more helpful in earlier adolescence when they are more intimately involved in teens’ lives, but friends and romantic partners more helpful at older ages when these partners have also acquired greater knowledge and experience to be supportive of teens in helpful ways.
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