Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Professor Fhagen-Smith looking at “self”

Professor Peony Fhagen-SmithPeony Fhagen-Smith, associate professor of psychology and African, African American, diaspora studies, focuses on social and emotional development in her research, especially as both relate to identity. Currently, she is working on new research that seeks to shed light on how adolescents develop their sense of self. Wheaton students are serving as research assistants on the project, collecting data at several New England middle and high schools. We recently talked to the professor to get a sense of this work.

Tell us about the research.

The Self-Portrait Project is designed to investigate how adolescents in seventh, ninth and 11th grade develop their view of themselves. Past research has demonstrated that ninth graders experience the most distress or conflict over their differing self-dimensions (They might be outgoing with friends, but quiet at school, for example). Why? While they are cognitively aware of their differing ways of being in different settings, they aren’t yet ready to deal with the seeming contradictions in the self. Current theoretical and empirical work suggests that environmental factors may modify this evolution of the self. For example, youth of color may have earlier experiences with being different in different situations, so they may experience distress or conflict over opposite self-dimensions in seventh grade or even earlier. Other environmental factors that may impact self-development that are being considered in this study are divorce and experiences with humiliation. Differences in masculine and feminine traits and the level of comfort in voicing one’s opinion have also been found to be related to self-development and will be further investigated in my work.

How did you become interested in this subject?

As a graduate student, I read a journal article published in 1992 about a research study on self-development by Susan Harter. She had developed what to me was the most ingenious way to assess self-development during adolescence. Adolescents are asked to write down descriptors of how they are with their mother, father, peers, best friend, in the classroom, as a student, and in romantic relationships. (In my current research I have added another setting—“online.”) Then they are asked to identify perceived opposites and conflicts in their descriptors of themselves in various settings. She was interested in the developmental changes that occur from early adolescence to late adolescence, in terms of the number of opposites and conflicts reported. This research stems from a basic concept in adolescent research: that we become more abstract in how we describe ourselves as we get older. When describing “self,” a nine-year-old centers on things that they own, or things they can do, “I can run fast,” “I’m good at math,” “I am not good at reading,” those kinds of descriptors. With abstract thinking come self-descriptions like, “I’m studious” or “I’m shy.” So you can see a real transition in the way in which children describe themselves if you ask them to answer the question “Who am I?” Harter took this idea of becoming more abstract and suggested that there is an important developmental process that occurs as adolescents are able to think more abstractly about themselves. She was really interested in understanding how thinking abstractly can at first be confusing for adolescents as their cognitive thinking becomes less concrete. In addition, this confusion can have implications for adolescents’ understanding of themselves and their social and emotional functioning. I have used Susan Harter’s Self-Portrait Measure on occasion in my “Adolescent Development” class since I began teaching the course in the spring of 2008. I ask students to complete the measure as a way to expose them to measurement design and help them understand the research on self-development during adolescence.

How could your research help parents?

The more parents understand about psychological processes associated with being an adolescent in a U.S. context the better prepared we, as parents, are for helping our children navigate multiple environments successfully. Growing up is hard work and adolescents who successfully navigate the adolescent years are provided with the necessary balance of support and autonomy by parents and caregivers. For example, having caregivers point out ways that they notice their adolescent is different in different situations and why that might be confusing could be very helpful to a teen who is struggling with integrating the self.

How could this help schools?

Research related to self-development could help school officials understand adolescents who are going through all realms of self and identity development processes and are at risk for psychological and academic problems and vulnerable to bullying. In the 21st century, we are all asked to exist in many more settings than in any time in human history. Being able to easily transition between settings and behave appropriately are skills that adolescents are developing. With this societal demand comes a strain on the developing self and may leave some young people at a heightened risk for low self-worth, confusion and ultimately peer rejection. Peer rejection goes beyond a lack of peer approval and can involve repeated exposure to chronic peer humiliation. Adolescents who experience chronic peer humiliation and who have difficult family lives, few, if any, friends, and limited social support are at risk for a host of psychological difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, academic difficulties, and acting-out problems. These psychological difficulties can turn into behaviors that lead to real tragedies, such as the recent suicides by teenagers who had experienced peer humiliation, and also the school shooting sprees that occurred in the 1990s. We often look for explanations for these tragedies. Scientific research on basic psychological processes of adolescent development can help us better understand these tragedies, which are products of abnormal behavior due in part to assaults to the self (peer rejection and bullying). Appropriately, school officials are now turning their attention to how victims of bullying can bolster their sense of self so they build a sort of psychological armor for protecting themselves and ultimately indirectly quelling the bullying behavior of peers.

Photo / Nicki Pardo