The Performance of Adolescent Stigma – The Socjournal

By Colin Schlossman, Ph.D., Columbia College and
Sofia Schlossman, Florida International University

The violence of conformity

Upon perusing a copy of Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity by Erving Goffman (1963), we were struck by the cognitive and behavioral similarities some current day adolescents share with the unfortunate blind, disfigured and disabled individuals described in his book. Specifically, secretive behavior, the use of isolation, lack of motivation, jargon creation, closed group formation, social anxiety and avoidance, depressed mood and seemingly free-floating anger are fairly common. As we observed and questioned adolescents, we became curious as to the source of these adolescent roles and behaviors and apparent alienation from prevailing or adult culture and specifically parent engagement. It was like they had written mysterious parts for themselves in the play production called “life.” Our curiosity morphed into wonderment as to how much this common phenomenon is part of the natural independence/ maturing process internal to youth as exhibited traditionally by adolescent subcultural formations and how much is driven by external forces such as changes in the prevailing culture, economic conditions and possibly other factors.

We put together here a collection of our thoughts and suggestions on this topic, intending it to be only one explanation of these phenomena. It may be helpful for the reader to see this topic as if watching a movie or play by “sitting back” and reserving judgment until the end, as if you were cast as a casual bystander in a play.

The majority of adolescents seem to be coping sufficiently well and they are not the subject of this discussion. Our purposes here are to describe “adolescent stigma,” its creation and maintenance factors, the possible relations to apparent increases in relationship problems among this group and finally to offer our suggestions for parents, teachers and other models to minimize the process. We hope that as much as possible the reader will reflect on ways to hear and value adolescents’ opinions, include adolescents in the decision making process, allow them to make their mistakes as graciously as possible, and to find ways to partner with them in their journey to full independence and adulthood.

The Stage is Set

According to Goffman, we unconsciously construct a set of expectations prior to engaging in any social situation. From the types of persons we may encounter, how they may be dressed and what they may say and do, we engage in a running real time comparison to our prior construction. The more similar the two, the more acceptable and “normal” we judge the elements of the given social situation. For example, at a church function we generally expect attendees to dress more formally than when shopping. Upon noticing dissimilar aspects or exceptions though, we may experience some amount of uneasiness and may see these exceptions on a continuum from merely different, to odd, to something quite bizarre or even despicable. For example, at a family outing, we see a loud public display of arguing, a scantily dressed female, open use of illicit drugs, etc. Over time we become comfortable by experiencing our internal set of rules as “normal,” and in the process create a hierarchy of normalcy. In this process we forget the location and time bound nature of all cultural generation and do not see the prevailing culture’s alienating side effects for some adolescents. Is it reasonable to expect a visiting foreign exchange student from a rural village in China, outside of her environment for the very first time and residing with us for a summer, to ascribe exactly or nearly so to our view of the world? Yet daily we can unknowingly alienate our young by our lack of awareness of their own struggle for a sense of meaning and position in “adult” culture.

Most everyone agrees that adolescence can be experienced as difficult, scary and unnerving. Largely adults forget the depths of their own adolescent struggles and tend to see it as a time of natural confusion that everyone must go through. It’s as if it is magically self-determined, creates its own power and direction and decides when it will abate itself. They do not see themselves and other adults as purveyors of at least a part of that struggle. This allows adults to stay detached and responsibility free. “What to do, what to do,” said the Mad hatter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, (1865). Ironically, many adolescents summarily agree that they are misunderstood, under-consulted, at times ignored and even denigrated for their opinions by adults. Some even feel they have been purposely alienated by society.

We acknowledge that many of the behaviors described here have been seen in one form or another in generations past. So one may easily pass off the messages here as just another attempt to make excuses for bad adolescent behavior, to allow and condone their mediocrity, or as just added reasons to release adolescents from responsibility.  That is not the message here at all. The thing is, more than a few adolescents are suffering. How do we explain their high suicide rate, self-injurious behavior, high rate of eating disorders or the rather new adolescent trend of forcing foreign objects under their skin such as paper clips, pencil lead and other small objects? Why are so many adolescents using electronic media as substitutes for in vivo (in person) interaction, effectively becoming modern day physical hermits? Why are so many truly depressed?

The Play Begins

We contend that some adolescents’ social experience is felt as forcefully as the rejection and ridicule the disabled and disfigured experienced in the 1950’s, as described by Goffman. The common result is moderate to severe ongoing loss of self-esteem and thus these adolescent performances we believe are in large part attempts to ward off a perceived hostile culture and to restore esteem and a sense of control.

The culprits for today’s adolescents are generally agreed to be the long standing cultural factors that continue to affect all of us:

  • Reliance on social position and material possessions as primary determiners of status and ultimately self-esteem. “I can’t show up to school in these old clothes so I may as well not go at all.”
  • Technological and cultural change and the consequent widespread expectations of obsolescence of ideas, their meanings, and relations among social structures and individuals. “What my teacher is droning on about today, will it be important 10 years from now?”
  • Perception that traditional preparations for career are increasingly less related to status and success, further adding to identity confusion. “My teachers talk about proper preparation for work and a career, but seem pretty powerless in the bureaucracy and are worried about keeping their own jobs.”

We contend other familiar societal messages and changes may have more recently become so radically extended as to be particularly insidious to the formation of healthy adolescent identity and social interaction, and thus their self-esteem:

  • The exalting of fame and fortune as solutions to any and all of life’s problems. Is the academic complacency of a younger sibling, in the face of a school smart older sibling, being acted out en mass? “I want to be a star, like in Hollywood or in the NBA, not just some loser.”
  • The reliance by news and entertainment media on ever more negative and depressing messages. For example, showing professionals including doctors, police, government workers and people in general as not worthy of trust but of suspicion, adding to further adolescent alienation and confusion. “You can’t trust anyone. If you leave your stuff around, it won’t be there.”
  • Divorce of parents as powerful evidence for the futility of lifelong relationships and of ultimate trust in others, and the consequent retraction of adolescent social interaction and increased psychological isolation. These effects are felt by children of divorce and those with intact households as well. How many millions of children and adolescents, living with parents in unhealthy and healthy marriages, deal with anxiety on a daily basis stemming from thoughts of imminent divorce of their parents? “What’s the point of getting married, you are just going to get divorced anyway.”
  • Ubiquitous casual sex and interchangeable partners affecting adolescent perceptions of self-identity and social connection, primarily by inhibiting the strength of individuality and self-worth. The sense of stability in times past generated by the strong bond of love as reinforced by sexual exclusivity or the promise thereof between two partners has eroded. Teen pregnancy rates continue to be a factor. “I don’t want to get attached to any one guy so I won’t get hurt.” “My friends bet who will score first.” “I know my baby will always be there and love me.”
  • The necessity of substance use as a basic ingredient for “partying” and having a good time. For a growing number of adolescents, school, chores, work and even family commitment can have very different meanings than for past generations. After years of negotiating their responsibilities down and their deserved rewards up, commitment to shared family goals is low for some adolescents. “There is never anything to do.” “If I didn’t party, I would probably go crazy, like everything else is so boring.” “I’m not doing it, that’s not my job.”
  • The social connections presented by the internet, cell phone texting and other electronic devices have made it possible to be “social” without actually being personally involved in the traditional sense. We see an emerging trend that although younger adolescents may sleep with their phones, text hundreds of messages each day, and use Facebook and other social websites as false indicators of popularity and self-worth, they age into a more mature use of technology. Assuming a steady stream of new devices, maybe at least for younger adolescents we should be asking, “What are these activities a substitute for? What are the long term effects for the individual? What are the long term effects for society?”
  • Popular music presents antisocial, hedonistic and deprecating messages such as pleasure for its own sake, people are just objects – sexual and otherwise, rules are made to be broken, etc. Although we all need to relax and take some time out for fun, many adolescents listen to popular music whenever and as much as they can. Withdrawing from the real world and buying into these messages may create for some adolescents an ever-present disconnect and decreased motivation. “I don’t think adults can tell me what I should do.”
  • The “time jam” for many parents and adolescents alike has become critical, leaving little time for shared activities and missed opportunities for bonding and building understanding, comradeship and family cohesion. One major side effect has been the substitution of “fast food” and snacking, and thus poor nutrition, weight gain and an apparent increase in diseases, e.g., diabetes. An even greater detriment may be a life-long diminished ability to form meaningful and lasting personal attachments, the building blocks for strong, impervious marriages. Another major effect, by extension, may be a lack of sustained motivation for true commitment to career and workplace. This intergenerational process seems to be continuing unabated.

Adolescent Group Performances

Many of the factors mentioned above we believe have contributed both to the creation and maintenance of alienation, decreased healthful behaviors and lessened overall positive outlook for some adolescents. In turn, their diminished sense of identity and self-esteem may explain in part a number of relationship problems among them.

Asocial behavior (e.g., isolating) usually increases in intensity and scope after receiving negative comments or rejecting behaviors in school by adolescent peers. Some so selected may choose to limit their interaction or participation in peer social activities to avoid further embarrassment. Video games, internet activities and television watching are common substitutes and can be addicting as well, so physical and social isolation may increase over time.

Adolescence can seem to be a time of heightened overt cruelty largely by their own peers. Formation of small groups gives some a needed sense of belonging, comradeship and safety. Some recent popular teen movies have focused on athletes and/or gorgeous girls bullying their same gender peers for amusement. Bullying has now extended to the internet and other electronic media. Some of the cases of intense school violence have been linked to extremely alienated adolescents. In some cases these adolescents have joined a few others who usually have also experienced peer rejection in some form.

The force to conform may be greater than in times past. This is seen in all spheres of adolescent expression and endeavor, e.g., their modes of dress, use of electronics, speech and written shorthand, music styles and probably most importantly their preference for short term goals and thinking. Government statistics show gang membership and gang related incidents have doubled since the 1990’s with over 1 million adolescents currently involved in gangs. This in turn decreases an adolescent’s chance to achieve academically and thus later in life increases their antisocial thinking and behavior, leading to greater friction and at times violence among adolescents.

This age group seems to have embodied the instant cure and solution for any ill or want. This trend is seen in the limited range of interests for many adolescents such as getting a car to increase independence, wearing the latest fashion trend to be accepted, and for some, ignoring academics. News reports indicate this age group has a greater use than in the recent past of the “stomach band” which limits weight gain. More have used plastic surgery than in the past and are more likely to engage in sexuality to gain popularity. We propose that overly focusing on surface image and casual relationships denies many adolescents the needed experience of genuine interaction and goal attainment that is needed for informed and intelligent decision making in adulthood.

Some evidence of the effect of extended television viewing has been linked to attention problems for school type tasks. Additionally, some adolescents develop an escalated excitement threshold and an increased need for novelty which has been linked to a lack of school focus and a tendency for short term rewards. Unfortunately for some teens, long term meaningful interpersonal relationships and dedication to employment will never compete with the excitement levels and short bursts of intense action seen in television shows and computer/video based games. Peer interaction that is superficial and unrewarding may set the stage for reduced social expectations and a lifelong cycle of lack of true interpersonal effort and weak, unfulfilling relationships.

The Last Act: Suggestions for Role Models

Adults collectively have set the stage and written the dialogue for the performances of adolescents in this production. Much has already been written elsewhere about things parents and other significant adults can do to alleviate some of these problems. The internet is full of information and suggestions for activities, etc. We think that adults would be most helpful by guiding their own behavior with the mindset that every adolescent is visiting us from a distant land. We will never truly understand them but we will graciously accept them and make them feel at home.

Parents and all adults could devote more of their time and energy to adolescents and realize that adolescence is naturally a time to keep secrets, try new behaviors and take risks. It is vital for adolescents to exercise independence and equally so for the adults in their lives to allow some independence while keeping lines of communication open and the relationship fun and upbeat. A few rare parents are able to become the source of advice and information for the social group of one of their own adolescents. This type of parenting is nonjudgmental, entertaining, involved, knowledgeable and above all discrete without becoming “friends” with the teen group. One measurement of success of the parental role is how close to this ideal a parent actually performs. Some parents do not even know the names of the significant peers in their adolescent’s life.

We stand by the notion that all adults are de facto role models and should show acceptance, interest, optimism, flexibility, concern and care. Teachers should attempt to understand and react to adolescents’ silent motivators and goals that drive their behaviors. All adults should keep in mind that adolescents are truly visiting us from another land. Let’s all help them adjust to this society in the last act of this production called life.

Carroll, L. (1865). Alice in Wonderland. (Actually written by English author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)

Goffman, I. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Simon & Schuster, N.Y.

Comments are welcomed.

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