Maybe you remember your own social life in your mid-teens as dynamic and, most of all, dramatic. Why? Does drama serve a purpose?
You are probably familiar with teen-movies about dramatic social lives in high schools, such as Mean Girls. In this movie, the 15-year-old home-schooled Cady is confronted with the social rules of high school for the first time. She meets three popular girls and gets accepted into their group. However, when one of these girls does not receive a candy cane for Christmas from the unofficial leader of the group she feels excluded and starts fighting for the leader’s attention. This results in some serious social issues within the group.
Maybe you remember similar scenes (if perhaps a little less dramatic) from your own mid-teen life? It must be exhausting for teens to maintain friendships in this way. So why do teenagers have and need all this drama? Is there something good in this behavior as well?
Adolescence is considered a very sensitive period for the development of social skills and social competence. One of the most important activities in adolescence is forming and maintaining friendships. Friendships become not only more important, but also become more complex than in childhood. These relationships are helpful in forming an identity and building self-esteem. Friendships also enable adolescents to improve social skills that are useful for later close relationships.
The social brain and social development
During adolescence, the teenage brain undergoes tremendous changes related to the development of social behavior. Together, these developing brain regions are called the ‘social brain network’. This network is important for social behavior in interactions with peers, such as the abilities of perspective-taking and understanding the intentions of others.
There are indications that social development across adolescence is associated with an interplay between the social environment and brain development. For example, as adolescents grow older, social brain regions involved in perspective-taking and behavior regulation mature. Related to this brain development, older adolescents are more able to take other people’s perspectives into account during interactions than younger adolescents. This means that as adolescents grow older, they think more about the consequences of their behavior for others and start behaving in accordance with this ‘newly acquired’ information.
Teenagers on their way to adulthood
So the interplay between brain development and the social environment seems to enable teenagers to learn about the world and its social norms and how to adapt quickly to different social situations. As they make their way towards adulthood, teenagers probably do need all the drama within their peer group in order to form their identity and to learn how to behave and feel comfortable in different social situations. So the next time you hear a group of teenage girls bitching about their ‘friends’ in the bus, remember this is all part of their development and they will probably learn from it!