Fostering Pro-Social Adolescent Development

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By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.



In my role as a forensic psychologist, I evaluate adolescents with legal problems. Sometimes these evaluations are in anticipation of a transfer hearing, in which the prosecutor will argue that the adolescent offender should be tried as an adult in criminal court, and the juvenile court judge must decide whether to transfer the case. In such instances, I am called upon to describe to the court the ways in which the adolescent’s development was derailed and the circumstances that contributed to the development of criminal behaviors. I am also asked to recommend interventions for rehabilitating the adolescent. In order to know what help these troubled adolescents need, it is first necessary to understand the factors that contribute to successful adolescent development. In their book Rethinking juvenile justice, Elizabeth Scott and Laurence Steinberg describe three conditions during adolescence that have been shown to foster social and emotional maturity: (1) authoritative parenting; (2) participation in pro-social peer groups; and (3) involvement in activities that allow for autonomous decision-making and critical thinking.

An authoritative parenting style is one that strikes a balance between being loving and firm. Such parents establish developmentally appropriate limits and expectations and encourage independence and differentiation. Authoritative parenting can be contrasted with other styles of parenting: authoritarian (extremely strict, rigid, and controlling), permissive (overly accepting with insufficient limits), and neglectful (disengaged and emotionally uninvolved). For adolescents, being the recipient of authoritative parenting from at least one adult is associated with numerous positive outcomes. According to Scott and Steinberg, “Countless studies…show unequivocally that adolescents who have been raised by authoritative parents are less impulsive, more self-reliant, less vulnerable to peer pressure, and more successful in school than are their age-mates who were raised in other ways. Not surprisingly, adolescents with authoritative parents are also less likely to commit antisocial or criminal acts, less likely to have drug and alcohol problems, and less likely to develop significant mental health problems.”

In order to be prepared for adulthood, adolescents must learn to think for themselves and solve real-life problems independently.

In addition to authoritative parenting, positive outcomes during adolescence are also associated with involvement in a peer group “that models and values pro-social behavior and academic success.” Adolescents are more susceptible to peer pressure than adults, and this is true for both negative and positive peer pressure. Many adolescents start getting in trouble due to associating with delinquent peers from whom they seek to obtain respect and acceptance by engaging in antisocial acts. The key, then, is to identify options for participation in groups whose members encourage emulation of law-abiding and growth-enhancing behaviors. Some possibilities include religiously affiliated youth groups, scouts, team sports, marching band, and school clubs. If peer groups are not available to a particular adolescent, close involvement with a mentor could produce similar positive outcomes.

A third factor associated with successful social and emotional development in adolescence is involvement in activities that provide opportunities for autonomous decision-making and critical thinking. In order to be prepared for adulthood, adolescents must learn to think for themselves and solve real-life problems independently. Opportunities for doing so can be built into the school curriculum and are also available in part time jobs, internships, and community service projects. When an adolescent makes a decision that is misguided or regrettable, parents and teachers can be available to assist with non-judgmental debriefing, allowing the adolescent to learn from the mistake. For example, the adolescent could be asked “if you could make the decision again, what would you do differently this time?”

By highlighting the factors associated with successful social and emotional development for adolescents, Scott and Steinberg provide a road map for parents and policy makers who are interested in prevention of adolescent developmental derailment and rehabilitation of adolescents who have gone off track.

Kathryn Rea Smith, Ph.D. is a private practice psychologist specializing in psychological assessment and parenting consultation. Dr. Smith can be reached at

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