Adolescence is rife with changes and challenges in preparation for the demands of adulthood. Teens are busy learning how to drive, date, and navigate their first jobs, all while gaining independence from their parents.
This combination of autonomy and new challenges makes self-efficacy, or belief in one’s ability to successfully accomplish goals, an especially important construct during adolescence. Self-efficacy guides the tasks individuals choose, how much effort they put forth, as well as how hard they persist in the face of setbacks. Those with high self-efficacy tend to set high goals and persist until they are accomplished, while those with low self-efficacy may shy away from challenging tasks or give up more easily when experiencing difficulties.
But what are the factors that can shape an adolescent’s self-efficacy beliefs?
A 2015 research study from Penn State University found that parents’ arguments or conflicts, particularly those adolescents perceive to be threatening, can undermine the development of self-efficacy. Conflict between parents may be threatening to adolescents for a number of reasons. For example, adolescents could worry that conflict may negatively affect their own relationship with their parents, or that parents’ conflicts could lead to separation or divorce. The more threatening adolescents found their parents’ conflicts, the lower their self-efficacy. In turn, adolescents’ lower levels of self-efficacy were associated with reduced overall well-being and greater problem behaviors down the road.
After seeing these results, the authors of the current study wanted to ask the opposite question – what types of positive experiences could help adolescents develop positive self-efficacy beliefs?
Given the amount of time adolescents spend at school and with their peers, the researchers decided to investigate these two domains.
Schools represent an ideal setting for adolescents to develop positive self-efficacy beliefs. Classrooms are structured to provide teens with opportunities to set academic goals, learn a variety of new skills, and receive supportive feedback from teachers. The authors reasoned that finding success in the school setting should help adolescents develop more positive beliefs about their own abilities in general. Similarly, peer relationships become increasingly important and influential during adolescence. Supportive peers may offer each other encouragement and positive feedback, helping to boost an adolescent’s beliefs in their own capabilities. Additionally, having a good group of friends may help adolescents feel more confident and comfortable in other social settings.
For these reasons, the researchers hypothesized that feeling successful in both school and peer settings would help boost adolescents’ general self-efficacy beliefs enough to compensate for the negative effects of parents’ conflicts at home.
To test these hypotheses, the researchers used data collected from 768 two-parent households with at least one adolescent. Adolescents and parents reported on key constructs in the study, including conflict between parents, the adolescent’s feeling of being threatened by the conflict, school success, and peer relationships, and feelings of self-efficacy. These data were collected during the fall of adolescents’ 6th-grade year of school, then again in the spring of 6th grade, and spring of 7th grade. By surveying parents and adolescents at multiple time points, researchers were then able to examine changes in adolescent self-efficacy over time.
After analyzing the data, the researchers discovered several key points.
Once again, adolescents’ perceptions of parents’ conflict as threatening predicted lower levels of self-efficacy, supporting the findings of the original 2015 study. However, school success in 6th grade – defined as higher GPA, positive feelings toward school, and ability to stay focused on academic tasks – positively contributed to adolescents’ general self-efficacy beliefs in 7th grade. The same pattern was discovered for peers – adolescents’ positive relationships with peers in 6th grade predicted higher levels of general self-efficacy in 7th grade. Importantly, adolescents’ positive experiences in both school and peer contexts effectively compensated for the negative effects of perceived conflict between parents as threatening.
One important takeaway from this finding is that adolescent self-efficacy is shaped by a collection of experiences across a number of important areas in their lives. The researchers see this as a reason to be hopeful – even when adolescents experience risks to their self-efficacy in the home, finding success in school and with peers can help them maintain positive self-efficacy, which in turn can promote their mental health and well-being down the road.
Additionally, the researchers believe this study reveals several important paths for supporting adolescent self-efficacy. First of all, parents’ relationship quality is crucial for the well-being of their adolescents. Supporting families and helping parents learn how to more effectively resolve their conflicts can reduce one source of risk to adolescents’ self-efficacy. This could potentially be accomplished through marital counselors or family-based prevention programs.
However, not all families may have easy access to such resources. In these cases, the school setting represents a second viable option. Given that schools have access to adolescents on a consistent, daily basis for most of the year, they have a unique opportunity to reach students who are struggling in other areas of life. Identifying these students and supporting their strengths in the school setting may help them go on to develop positive self-efficacy beliefs, compensating for risks experienced at home.
These findings are described in the article entitled Evaluating school and peer protective factors in the effects of interparental conflict on adolescent threat appraisals and self-efficacy, recently published in the Journal of Adolescence. This work was conducted by Devin M. McCauley (The Pennsylvania State University), Bridget B. Weymouth (University of Alabama), Mark E. Feinberg (The Pennsylvania State University), and Gregory M. Fosco (The Pennsylvania State University).
The National Institute on Drug Abuse helped support this research.