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KeywordsSelf-concept Clarity Rank-order Stability Parent Adolescent Relationship Quality Foster Adolescents Main Social Context
Self-concept clarity indicates the extent to which beliefs about the self are clearly and confidently defined, internally consistent, and stable over time (Campbell et al. 1996). Self-concept clarity belongs to a class of constructs that focus on the structural aspects of the self-concept. This class is related to, but distinct from, content dimensions of the self-concept that include knowledge of individual characteristics, commitments, + and values, and purposes and evaluation of this knowledge (e.g., Campbell 1990; Campbell et al. 1996, 2003).
Self-concept clarity provides a clear indication of self-certainty. In fact, self-concept clarity is positively related to enactment of meaningful identity choices, whereas it is negatively related to identity crises driven by reconsidering and discarding current commitments (Crocetti et al. 2008, 2010; Morsünbül et al. 2014, 2015; Schwartz et al. 2011). Thus, self-concept clarity is intertwined with healthy identity development (Campbell et al. 1996; Schwartz et al. 2011). More specifically, identity could be seen as representing how the self-concept is formed, while self-concept clarity might indicate how well the process of developing an own identity is going (Schwartz et al. 2012).
Stability and Change in Self-Concept Clarity
Self-concept clarity gauges the stability of the self-concept, as it comprises how consistently an individual perceives himself or herself (Campbell 1990). However, the clarity and stability of the self-concept are changeable, and adolescence is a key period for investigating patterns of change and stability in self-concept clarity. Indeed, it is during adolescence that the search for an enduring sense of “self” turns into a core developmental task (Erikson 1950, 1968), stimulated by the biological (i.e., puberty), cognitive (i.e., the acquisition of the formal-abstract reasoning), and social (i.e., the starting of new social interactions with peers and modifications in parent-adolescent relationships) changes that characterize this period of the life span (Lerner and Steinberg 2009). Thus, during adolescence, individuals may rethink their previous sense of self and experiment with new roles and life plans to find a set of goals and values that fit their aspirations and potentials.
Longitudinal studies highlighted small increases in self-concept clarity mean scores over the course of adolescence (Schwartz et al. 2011; Wu et al. 2010). Furthermore, they documented that self-concept clarity is characterized by high levels of rank-order stability (Crocetti et al. 2015; Schwartz et al. 2011, 2012; Wu et al. 2010; Van Dijk et al. 2014) that refers to the relative placement of individuals within a group and indicates whether people retain the same rank-ordering on a certain dimension over time (Roberts and DelVecchio 2000). Levels of rank-order stability of adolescent self-concept clarity were comparable to those found for other core personality characteristics, for instance the Big Five personality traits of agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience (Klimstra et al. 2009). Moreover, indices of rank-order stability increased during adolescence (Crocetti et al. 2015; Schwartz et al. 2012), suggesting that individual differences in self-concept clarity become increasingly set with age. Thus, in adolescence, slight progressive changes in the absolute levels of self-concept clarity go together with high levels of relative stability, suggesting that in formative periods young people increase in their self-certainty.
Furthermore, Crocetti et al. (2015) found significant gender differences for mean-level changes in self-concept clarity and rank-order stability in a six-wave longitudinal study with adolescents. Specifically, initial levels of self-concept clarity of males were higher than those of females, whereas mean rates of change were comparable (self-concept clarity of girls was stable over the course of adolescence, while self-concept clarity of boys slightly increased but then returned to the initial level) and rank-order stability of girls was significantly higher than rank-order stability of boys. Taken together, this evidence suggests the importance of paying attention to gender differences when studying patterns of self-concept clarity change and stability.
Self-Concept Clarity and Psychosocial Adjustment
The extent to which people hold stable and consistent views of themselves is related to their levels of adjustment and well-being (Bleidorn and Koedding 2013; Campbell et al. 2003). In this respect, high levels of self-concept clarity have been found to be positively related to self-esteem (Belon et al. 2011; Campbell et al. 1996; Smith et al. 1996; Wu et al. 2010), perception of meaning in life (Bigler et al. 2001; Blazek and Besta 2012), and affect balance (Bigler et al. 2001). Thus, gaining higher self-concept clarity seems to be an essential indicator of healthy development during adolescence.
Furthermore, individuals with higher self-concept clarity are expected to be less affected by (negative) external cues that are not consistent with their self-concept and are thought to be more flexible in responding to the social environment (Campbell 1990). Indeed, high self-concept clarity is related to relationship satisfaction and commitment (Lewandowski et al. 2010), whereas low self-concept clarity is associated with interpersonal problems (Constantino et al. 2006) and loneliness (Frijns and Finkenauer 2009). Therefore, self-concept clarity is highly relevant also for social development.
Notably, self-concept clarity is also associated with psychological problems. In fact, low self-concept clarity has been related to body dissatisfaction (Vartanian and Dey 2013), eating disturbances (Perry et al. 2008), and internalizing problems (Bigler et al. 2001; Smith et al. 1996). Importantly, longitudinal studies highlighted that, over the course of adolescence, lower self-concept clarity is intertwined with higher anxiety and depressive symptoms (Schwartz et al. 2012; Van Dijk et al. 2014). Overall, this evidence points to the importance of self-concept clarity for adaptive adolescent development and has strong clinical implications for interventions aimed at enhancing youth well-being.
Family Influences on Adolescent Self-Concept Clarity
Individuals form their self-concept in interaction with significant others (e.g., Cooley 1908; James 1890). In adolescence, family represents a main social context that can influence self-concept clarity. This influence can be further understood considering intergenerational transmission of self-concept clarity from parents to adolescents and associations between parent-adolescent relationship quality and self-concept clarity.
Intergenerational Transmission of Self-Concept Clarity
Intergenerational transmission of self-concept clarity in families with adolescents was found to be a unidirectional process, with fathers’ and mothers’ self-concept clarity having a similar positive effect on adolescents’ self-concept clarity over the course of adolescence (from age 13 to age 18; Crocetti et al. 2015). Specifically, rates of change in adolescents’ self-concept clarity were associated with initial level of fathers’ and mothers’ self-concept clarity. Importantly, the unidirectional influence of fathers’ and mothers’ self-concept clarity on adolescents’ self-concept clarity applied equally to adolescent boys and girls. Furthermore, the sizes of these effects were comparable for fathers and mothers. So, the pattern of influence in same-sex dyads (i.e., father-son, mother-daughter) was similar to the pattern of influence in opposite-sex dyads (i.e., father-daughter, mother-son). Thus, when adolescents of both genders can count on parents with high levels of self-certainty, they are more likely to increase their self-concept clarity over the course of adolescence.
This is consistent with intergenerational processes occurring in other domains of adolescent development. For instance, transmissions of cultural orientations (Vollebergh et al. 2001) and conflict resolution styles (Van Doorn et al. 2007) are also unidirectional processes, from parents to adolescents, while the reverse paths, from adolescents to parents, do not occur. This suggests a parental dominance in intergenerational transmission processes that can be explained by the higher stability reported by parents. In fact, parental self-concept clarity is more stable, or time-invariant, than adolescent self-concept clarity. So, the impact of parental self-concept clarity on adolescent self-concept clarity is an example of the impact that time-invariant processes have on more time-varying processes.
Furthermore, this unidirectional transmission process is consistent with the perspective of the social learning theory (Bandura 1977), suggesting that parents with higher self-certainty are more likely to represent models for their children and, doing so, affecting in a positive way their self-concept. In fact, although in adolescence parents’ influence may somehow decline (De Goede et al. 2009) since other socialization agents gain increasing relevance (e.g., peers; Brown 2004), parents continue to play a central role in children’s life (Helsen et al. 2000).
Associations Between Parent-Adolescent Relationship Quality and Self-Concept Clarity
A wide literature has empirically examined how parental practices and styles impact adolescent self-concept (cf. Dusek and McIntyre 2003). Theoretically, when parents show acceptance toward the adolescents’ views and ideas, this can give the adolescents the confidence and skills necessary to explore away from the family to develop their own selves, as suggested by attachment theory (Bowlby 1988). In fact, empirical studies showed that adolescents’ warm relationships with their parents contributed in positive ways to respondents’ self-concept clarity (Davis 2013; Perry et al. 2008; Wu 2009).
More specifically, communication with parents can be a key factor to foster adolescents’ self-concept clarity. Talking about one’s experiences, feelings, and thoughts can enhance adolescent self-understanding by forming links between elements of one’s life and the self (Grotevant 2001; Habermas and Bluck 2000; McLean et al. 2007). In particular, adolescents’ disclosure to parents is related to higher self-concept clarity later on, while keeping secrets had detrimental effects for self-concept clarity (Frijns and Finkenauer 2009). Similarly, open parent-adolescent communication is positively related, both concurrently and over time, to middle adolescents’ self-concept clarity (Van Dijk et al. 2014). Thus, open communication in which parents are supportive of the adolescents’ viewpoints and are active listeners seems to promote their children’s self-understanding (Grotevant and Cooper 1985; McLean et al. 2007).
Summing up, in adolescence, small mean increases in self-concept clarity go together with high levels of increasing rank-order stability, suggesting that young people increase their self-certainty in this formative period. Parents seem to have an influence on the level of their adolescents’ self-concept clarity, since their own level of self-concept clarity is positively associated to their children’s level of self-concept clarity (Crocetti et al. 2015), and also the relationship quality and level of open communication positively relates to the adolescents’ level of self-certainty (Davis 2013; Perry et al. 2008; Van Dijk et al. 2014; Wu 2009).
Importantly, self-concept clarity turns out to be a core indicator of healthy self-development and is closely interrelated to adolescent psychosocial adjustment. Self-concept clarity can be seen as an essential focus area for interventions to promote positive youth development. Therefore, for adolescents who are unsure of who they are, and who have an unstable self-concept, intervention may be needed in order to prevent or minimize psychological problems (Schwartz et al. 2012; Van Dijk et al. 2014).
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