Writing for Young Adults – Identity Formation


So high school wasn’t a complete disaster for me. I wasn’t popular or unpopular, athletic or un-athletic, smart or stupid. I had plenty of good friends, a couple of really cute boyfriends, and—all in all—nothing should have been all that memorable or traumatizing.

An invitation for my class reunion arrived one day.

I was a mess.

I should add: I’m not normally a mess.

I wanted to drop five pounds, buy a new dress, and finish my master’s degree in time for the night. I didn’t. I wanted to grow two inches, lighten my hair two shades, and publish my book.  That didn’t happen either (except the hair, that was easy).

I’m guessing this does not shock you. It’s almost intuitive that high school and its memories remain inordinately significant to adults. This phenomenon has even been named. It’s called the “reminiscence bump,” which is a scientifically quantified relationship between the amount of memory older adults recall from the period of time roughly between adolescence and young adulthood. There are several theories why we disproportionally remember those otherwise unmemorable teenage parties—for me—the most interesting of which is the relationship between that period of time and identity formation.

Erik Erickson, developmental psychologist, suggests that adolescence includes the “process of identity formation” that is ultimately achieved through the interaction of an individual personality with society (Sprinthall-Collins 36).

And, according to Sprinthall and Collins, authors of Adolescent Psychology: A Developmental Approach, peers may influence identity formation in teens in two ways.

First, “in informational influence peers serve as sources of knowledge about behavioral patterns, attitudes, and values in their consequences in different situations” (Sprinthall –Collins 269).  Informational influence is the way in which teens mine from the people around them, extracting ideas that they may or may not put to use.

Let’s use soccer as an example. A girl who makes the varsity team may decide, after observing her teammates, to stop wearing those small, tight shorts normally associated with cheerleaders. When playing soccer, she reasons, it’s probably better to have looser, longer shorts. She gathered some information and went with it.

Peers also exert social pressure through “normative influence,” which is the pressure on adolescents to behave as others around them behave (Sprinthall – Collins 269). Normative influence is a form of social comparison: using others’ behavior and skills as a standard against which to evaluate yourself. This is more like peer pressure.

So, in our example, our girls soccer player goes to practice and her teammates rip her apart for wearing Soffe shorts, and—even though she likes the Soffe shorts better—she buries them in the garbage when she gets home.

Informational influence and normative influence work together to help create newly emerging identities in teens, and these newly emerging identities may make this period of our lives super-memorable.

Here’s the cool thing: books can influence teens in these ways as well.

Characters and stories that allow a point of contact between the reader and the text act like informational influences otherwise found in real-life peers: no judgments are made, and passive observation is used, and therefore there is no attempt to control decisions. This lack of control and ridicule allows teens to try out new roles without fear. These stories invite teens to watch, and then consider. These books are thus like peers without the pressure—as long as they don’t try to teach.

Books that provide a normative influence, or a pressure to behave in a certain way, may also influence teen identity. In these books, a certain type of behavior is used as a conduit for teaching. These stories are preachy and smug, favoring conformity over information gathering.

I wonder…. Which stories are best for young adult readers and their emerging sense of self in this period of time that they will likely remember with disproportionate clarity?

Which type are you hoping to write?

Sprinthall, Norman A., and W. Andrew Collins. Adolescent Psychology: a Developmental View. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1984. Print.

7 thoughts on “Writing for Young Adults – Identity Formation

  1. Excellent post. To answer your question, I hope to write the kind of stories where the characters are themselves–warts and all. Love the points you made about the normative influence of peers. I guess that’s why some teens act and and even dress differently at home than they do at school, especially if they have a strict family environment. But I also wonder, the part technology plays now. I was having dinner with some friends the other day, who discussed a conversation between a teen and his grandfather. The grandfather wondered why the teen preferred to text his girlfriend instead of going to her house and interacting with her. With more and more teens becoming plugged in (phones, computers, iPod) what sort of influence is that having on their identities?

    • You make a great point, Linda. Technology has distanced teens from each other and yet provided more constant contact. It’s a fascinating combination, and I’ve often wondered if there is any link (or parallel) between this and the rise in “friends with benefits” relationships.

  2. The idea that books act as peers without pressure really interests me…I do a lot of reading and the characters in the books that I like tend to NOT be like me. I think part of the reason I like the books so much is for that exact reason–the characters and the story lines act as a way to step out and be someone else. I’m still in high school so I can’t speak about the whole reflection on high school thing, but I can certainly relate to the peer pressure.
    On the other hand, I do not think that these books come without influence. Often in young adult literature there is a sense of moralizing as well as a sense of what is “right” and what is “wrong.” I’m not sure its possible to enter a world that is free of bias and I’m not sure if that is even desirable when one picks up a book. (It’s not like I’m searching through the book store’s shelves saying, hmm I really hope this book has no outside influences or prejudices instilled in it by the author) I do know that books provide an alternative perspective and sometimes that’s all it takes to make someone stop and think for a moment. If I were an author, that’s exactly what I would want my readers to do. As a reader, that moment is what I crave.

    • Great thoughts here! I’m sure you’re right, writers nearly always bring their life experiences and thus their biases to their work. I write about football, a sport I love, and I’m sure that affection comes through. But–since I’m writing from within that culture–I also feel comfortable holding up its unresolved issues, like the violence I take up in Unnecessary Roughness.

      • Wow, great post, Laura. Interesting perspective on how teens navigate these years, and definitely something we should be conscious of as we write.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s