What is Adolescent Egocentrism?

The Cognitive Limitations of the Egocentric Adolescent

Two teenage girls using make-up in bedroom
Tweens think all eyes are on them. Howard Grey/Digital Vision/Getty Images

What Is Adolescent Egocentrism?

Have you ever wondered if your tween thought the world revolved around him or her? You might not be far from the truth. 

Adolescent egocentrism is teens' and older tweens' belief that others are highly attentive to their behavior and appearance. That is, egocentric adolescents believe that all eyes are on them all the time. Adolescent egocentrism is a developmentally normal cognitive limitation.

In other words, teens and older tweens can no more stop themselves from being egocentric than an infant can fix their inability to speak. Adolescent egocentrism usually appears around 11 or 12 years of age and tapers off around 15 or 16 years.

While it can be difficult parenting a tween who thinks all eyes are on him/her, parents must be patient and understanding to see their child through this phase of life by being supportive and understanding.

Adolescent egocentrism underlies many common tween and teen behaviors. For instance, adolescents often spend hours preening themselves because they think, "everyone will notice if I don't look good." They also become highly upset when they experience a minor embarrassment, such as dropping their tray in the cafeteria, because they think, "everyone saw it and will remember it forever!"

Adolescent egocentrism gives rise to two related beliefs seen in the late tween and teen years: the "imaginary audience" and the "personal fable."

The concept of adolescent egocentrism was first discussed by psychologist David Elkind.

Is Egocentrism a Problem? Why Egocentrism in Children is Usually Healthy

As annoying as it may be to witness, your tween's egocentrism is not only a normal part of development, it's necessary. Yes, all that self-centered behavior can be a good thing.

All tweens and teens naturally experience some degree of adolescent egocentrism as part of their cognitive development. In turn, being egocentric may support their personality development and growth. Egocentric thinking may encourage adolescents to break away from their family and to form unique identities, a process called individuation. This is important because individuation is one of the primary goals - if not THE primary goal - of adolescence.

Don't Kill The Messenger: Egocentrism as a Rite of Passage

As you witness your tweens continual self-absorbed behavior, complete with making everything about them, defining their preferences without being asked, and rebelling against anything that doesn't fit into their plans, look at their behavior as creating a blueprint. There is no room for ambiguity in building a structure. If you're an architect, you have to be clear about every detail of the building. Because adolescence is the time when your tween goes from concept to concrete personality-wise, allow them to work out the nuances of their character traits under your supervision without too much push back.

While it is unsettling, it's all preparing them for adulthood and for facing the world on their own.

The Elements of Egocentrism

Egocentric thinking encourages individuation through the two elements of egocentrism: the personal fable and the imaginary audience. The personal fable is an adolescent's belief that he is special and unique. It aids individuation by encouraging the child to think about himself as a separate entity instead of as a member of the family unit. The imaginary audience causes the adolescent to believe that peers are scrutinizing and commenting on his every move. Like the personal fable, this acute self-awareness makes the adolescent focus on himself as a distinct, autonomous being. It also aids individuation by calling attention to social interactions that do not involve the family - even if most of these "interactions" are in the adolescent's mind!

Egocentrism and Beyond

It may not be fun to have an egocentric adolescent in your house. Afterall, who wants to be around someone who thinks he is both extraordinary and being watched? But rest assured that your child's personality will probably be better for it in the long run. That said, do be aware that problem behaviors may arise from egocentric thinking - including substance userisk takingeating disorders, self esteem issues and vandalism - and be prepared to intervene if necessary, and always be the parent your child needs you to be.

Source:
Elkind, PhD, David. Egocentrism in Adolescence. Child Development. 1967. 38: 1025-1034.

Vartanian, Lesa Rae. Revisiting the imaginary audience and personal fable constructs of adolescent egocentrism: A conceptual review. Adolescence. (2000). 35(140): 639-661.

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