Self-Concept Clarity Across Adolescence: Longitudinal Associations With Open Communication With Parents and Internalizing Symptoms

Marloes van Dijk


By: Marloes van Dijk, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Susan Branje, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Loes Keijsers, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Skyler T. Hawk, Chinese University of Hong Kong
William W. Hale III, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Wim Meeus, Utrecht University and at Tilburg University, The Netherlands

In adolescence, the development of the self is an important task (Erikson, 1963; Marcia, 1966; Meeus, Van de Schoot, Keijsers, Schwartz, & Branje, 2010). An essential aspect of the self is self-concept clarity (SCC; Bigler et al., 2001; Schwartz et al., 2010), the extent to which beliefs about the self are clearly and confidently defined, stable over time, and internally consistent (Campbell et al., 1996). In other words, SCC refers to the structure of the self-concept, and not to the content of the self-concept. The current longitudinal study investigated whether a more clear self-concept in adolescence may be predicted by higher levels of open communication with parents and lower levels of internalizing problems (i.e., depressive and anxiety symptoms), and whether a less clear self-concept may predict higher levels of depression and anxiety.

Talking about the self and one’s life is thought to enhance self-understanding by forming links between elements of one’s life and the self (Habermas & Bluck, 2000; McLean, Pasupathi, & Pals, 2007). Therefore, SCC might be promoted by open communication between adolescents and parents, in which parents are supportive of the adolescent’s viewpoints and are active listeners (McLean et al., 2007). Moreover, problems with SCC development could enhance depression and anxiety. Periods of heightened self-reflection in the development of SCC may go together with temporary declines in self-esteem and more internalizing problems because youths are struggling with problematic issues (Bell, Wieling, & Watson, 2004; Panayiotou & Kokkinos, 2006). Conversely, higher anxiety relates to more uncertainty and has been identified as a risk factor for identity development (Crocetti, Klimstra, Keijsers, Hale, & Meeus, 2009), so may predict lower SCC. Similar linkages could be expected for depressive symptoms.

Dutch youths reported on open communication, SCC, depressive and anxiety symptoms every year, from on average age 13 until 16 years old. As was expected, concurrent positive links were consistently found between open communication and SCC, and negative links between SCC and both depressive and anxiety symptoms. In middle adolescence, higher levels of open communication with parents preceded higher SCC. Lower SCC preceded higher levels of depression across all waves, and higher anxiety levels from age 13 to age 14. Conversely, higher anxiety levels predicted lower SCC between age 13 and 15. SCC did not mediate the longitudinal associations between open communication and internalizing symptoms.

This study is one of the first to investigate SCC across adolescence. It highlights the possible importance of both anxiety and communication with parents in understanding the development of a clear self-concept, and demonstrates an association between lower SCC and higher levels of later depressive and anxiety symptoms.

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