The transition from childhood to adulthood is replete with change. A host of physical, cognitive, and socioemotional transformations occur as tweens and teens mature and develop their own identities. The magnitude of changes young people experience demands their attention and occupies their thoughts. “It’s like the world revolves around them,” their parents often sigh.
This stage of development, referred to as adolescent egocentrism, is characterized by exaggerated self-awareness and the inability to differentiate between one’s own perceptions and the perceptions of others. In other words, the adolescent’s view is the only possible view. All others are false. Because they are hyper-focused on themselves, adolescents feel everyone else must be, too.
Adolescent egocentrism typically occurs between approximately 11 and 16 years of age. While the word “egocentric” has a negative connotation, this stage is a normal part of adolescent development.
How Adolescent Egocentrism Affects Teen Behavior
Adolescent egocentrism is characterized by excessive self-consciousness. Tweens and teens are preoccupied with what others think of them. They may even become paranoid, believing that others are scrutinizing their every move.
For some teenagers, adolescent egocentrism leads to intense insecurity. The adolescent feels perpetually inadequate, as if they don’t measure up. In other teenagers, adolescent egocentrism manifests as inflated confidence. They may become convinced their peers are plotting to sabotage them out of jealousy.
Another characteristic of adolescent egocentrism is difficulty assessing risk. Seeing themselves as the center of the universe and therefore invincible, teenagers are apt to engage in risky activities that may have unwanted or dangerous consequences.
Adolescent Egocentrism Examples
Adolescent egocentrism manifests in typical adolescent behaviors such as:
- Spending an inordinate amount of time grooming for fear of being ridiculed for not looking just right
- Refusing to go to school because they have a pimple or other flaw and believe that all their classmates will be staring at them
- Reluctance to share personal information due to feeling constantly observed by others and at risk of judgment
- Engaging in reckless driving, alcohol abuse, or other drug use without concern for the consequences
- Having unprotected sex, because they think that pregnancy or contracting sexually transmitted diseases happens to other people, not them
Research on and History of Adolescent Egocentrism
Egocentrism is a central concept in developmental psychology. In the early 20th century, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget suggested that children are egocentric because they lack the ability to understand others’ points of view. He also posited that children don’t just have smaller brains than adults, but that they think differently from adults.
As children mature, Piaget said, they move through four stages of cognitive development that shape how they learn. The final stage, called formal operational thought, begins in early adolescence, around age 12. Piaget said that formal operations enable adolescents to think abstractly, hypothesize, and utilize deductive reasoning. At this stage of development, young people are capable of thinking about what others may be thinking.
American child psychologist David Elkind expanded on Piaget’s work. He coined the term adolescent egocentrism in 1967. Elkind argued that the physical changes adolescents experience during puberty create a heightened level of self-absorption. The self-consciousness adolescents typically exhibit, Elkind suggested, is a result of the adolescent belief that everyone perceives the world as they do. Because adolescents are overly concerned with their appearance and behavior, they believe others must be overly concerned with their appearance and behavior, too.
According to Elkind, adolescent egocentrism results in two phenomena: the imaginary audience and the personal fable.
Imaginary Audience: “Everyone is watching me all the time”
The imaginary audience is a psychological state in which people have the mistaken impression that throngs of people are intently listening to or watching them. While this state may occur at any age, all adolescents experience it.
This belief causes adolescents to construct imaginary situations in which they anticipate others’ reactions to them in social situations that have not yet occurred. Their visions of how others will respond to them form the imaginary audience. These situations rarely unfold the way teens imagine, however. In truth, all eyes are rarely on them.
Personal Fable: “No one understands me, because I’m not like anyone else”
According to Elkind, the personal fable is the corollary to the imaginary audience. Seeing themselves as the center of attention, adolescents adopt a complex set of beliefs about their personal uniqueness. They feel special, as if no one else has ever experienced such deep emotions and could therefore never understand how they feel. The notion that their feelings are unique operates as a kind of fable, a story they tell themselves.
This illusion of grandeur causes adolescents to believe that the rules that apply to others don’t apply to them. They feel invulnerable and immortal, and therefore lack impulse control—engaging in risky behaviors without fear of the consequences.
The Association Between Teen Egocentrism and Mental Health Issues
By itself, adolescent egocentrism is not a mental health issue, nor is it a neurological disorder. Rather, it’s an expected developmental stage of life during which adolescents come to understand their relationship with the world. Egocentrism helps teenagers individuate and form their own identities. This process is an inevitable byproduct of adolescence.
The psychological constructs of the imaginary audience and the personal fable typically fade away in middle to late adolescence. With time, teens come to see themselves in a more realistic light in relation to their peers and to the world at large.
While they’re experiencing it, however, expect adolescent egocentrism can cause teenagers to exhibit a preoccupation with their appearance, attention-seeking behavior, and risk-taking behaviors. Or, in an attempt to “disappear,” they may become excessively shy and private, experience extreme self-consciousness, or try to conform so they won’t be noticed.
Adolescent Egocentrism vs. Adolescent Narcissism
While all teenagers experience adolescent egocentrism, not all teenagers suffer from narcissism. The inability to see another’s point of view is a hallmark of adolescent egocentrism. Teenagers who suffer from narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder, however, exhibit more complex and problematic behavior.
Adolescent egocentrism creates the personal fable that the adolescent is unique and invincible. But narcissism creates a superiority complex that causes sufferers to exaggerate their achievements and belittle those they perceive as a threat. Narcissistic teenagers may:
- See another’s point of view, but have no empathy for it
- Become agitated or enraged when someone doesn’t perceive things as they do
- Engage in manipulative behavior without remorse
- Have overblown reactions to the slightest perceived criticism
- Require admiration to a disturbing extent, more than typical self-centeredness
What Makes Teens Vulnerable to Narcissism?
Narcissistic traits are common in adolescence, but not all teenagers exhibiting narcissistic traits become narcissists. Researchers don’t know exactly why some teenagers suffer from narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder. One study, however, found that parental overprotection, overvaluation, and leniency were associated with higher levels of narcissism among young people.
Social media isn’t helping, either. Research shows that young people are becoming more narcissistic, as the constant attention and validation that social media offers reinforces egocentrism. A study of adolescents in four countries found that higher usage of social media is linked to higher rates of narcissism.
The Impact of Adolescent Egocentrism on Parents
Whether a young person is suffering from narcissism or experiencing adolescent egocentrism, the impact on the family, of course, is inevitable. Adolescent egocentrism is a notoriously difficult stage to parent. This phase of human development is characterized by frequent arguments between parents and teens. That’s because teens don’t understand why their parents can’t see things the way they do. Emotional outbursts are common, often precipitated by something that seems like no big deal to parents.
Teenagers can be demanding of parents and stubborn as well as overly shy, sensitive, and self-critical. Many parents feel their children have transformed so fully that they’ve become completely different people. It’s not uncommon for parents of tweens and teens to feel unsure, overwhelmed, and exhausted.
Tips for Parents on Coping with Adolescent Egocentrism
Early to mid-adolescence can be one of the most taxing periods for parents. Even the calmest and most experienced parents can find themselves unsure of which way to turn. To maintain your equanimity and preserve the bond with your teen, try the following approaches.
To combat the anxiety and stress of parenting a tween or teen, activate the relaxation response. Deep breathing for a few minutes a day increases the supply of oxygen to the brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. This calms the body and quiets the mind. Take a breathing break anytime you feel triggered.
Close your eyes and think back to your adolescence. How did you feel about the changes happening in your body? How did you feel in relation to your parents and friends? You may not have had the same stressors as your children, but there are likely similarities. Focus on the feelings of insecurity and self-consciousness you may have had. Remembering your own trials and tribulations can help you have empathy for your children’s struggles.
Connecting with your kids might be challenging at this time, but find ways to bond whenever possible. If your daughter loves stand-up comedy, take her to a local comedy club or watch a stand-up comic on television together. If your son is passionate about astronomy, take him to a planetarium or head outside on a clear night and ask him to point out his favorite constellations. Forging connections with your children around things you enjoy discussing or doing together can help when you’re in the throes of adolescent egocentrism.
Start conversations in early adolescence about the kinds of issues your children will be confronting as they grow. These include puberty, peer pressure, relationships, sexuality, and substance abuse. Engaging with these topics early on gives tweens and teens a conversational framework they can build on with you as they mature.
To grow into healthy adults, children need their parents’ support and unconditional love. While you may not agree with everything your teenager says or does, they should consistently feel that you love and accept them no matter what. Point out your teen’s strengths. Celebrate their successes. Focus on the positive.
Treatment for Mental Health Issues Related to Egocentrism
While adolescent egocentrism isn’t a mental health issue by itself, it can produce feelings of anxiety and depression. Moreover, it may enhance adolescents’ risk-taking behaviors, creating conflict within the family.
At Newport Academy, we use a variety of approaches to help teens and their families manage emotions and build healthy coping mechanisms. Every teen at Newport has a tailored treatment schedule that includes individual and group sessions using modalities such as CBT, DBT, and family therapy. Family therapy is an essential part of our approach, rebuilding parent-child bonds so teens can feel safe turning to their parents for support when they are struggling.
Start the healing journey today: Contact us for a free teen mental health assessment.
- Adolescent egocentrism is a normal stage of adolescent development that occurs between approximately 11 and 16 years of age. In this stage, young people are overly self-involved and unable to differentiate between their perceptions and the perceptions of others.
- Tweens and teens operate with the assumption that almost everyone is closely monitoring their every move. Their tendency to anticipate the reactions of others is a psychological state called the imaginary audience.
- Inherently self-absorbed during adolescence, young people create what is referred to as a personal fable. Believing in their uniqueness, they can’t imagine that anyone else has ever experienced such profound thoughts or deep feelings.
- Adolescent egocentrism is different from narcissism. Teenagers who suffer from narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder exhibit more problematic behavior. While adolescent egocentrism causes teenagers to be preoccupied with themselves, narcissistic teenagers are more apt to act superior, be manipulative, require an inordinate amount of praise, and react angrily if someone disagrees with them.
- It’s not unusual for parents to feel exhausted and unsure about what to do during this stage of adolescence. To practice self-care and maintain your relationship with your teen, breathe deeply, try to empathize, connect around things of interest to your teen, communicate openly, and offer unconditional support.
Frequently Asked Questions About Adolescent Egocentrism
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