Adolescent Self-Esteem and Locus of Control: A Longitudinal Study of Gender and Age Differences

Article excerpt

The period of adolescence in the U.S. today has been viewed in different ways. Some theorists have supported the idea that adolescence is a difficult and stressful period (Bios, 1962; Erikson, 1950). However, recent research has led to a renewed debate on how traumatic this period actually is for the majority of adolescents (Powers, Hauser, & Kilner, 1989).

If adolescence is a tumultuous time, it would be expected that personality variables such as self-esteem and locus of control would change as teenagers struggle with the move toward adulthood. On the other hand, stable self-esteem and locus of control would indicate that adolescence may be less stressful than some theorists have proposed.

Development is a complicated process in which many 'components influence each other. Psychologists, sociologists, physiologists, educators, psychiatrists, and others, have tried to tease out the elements that are most critical to healthy development (Quadrel, Fischhoff, & Davis, 1993; Zaslow & Takanishi, 1993). This research was designed to contribute to this effort.

It is important to acknowledge that most of the theories of adolescent development are based on research with a limited population: primarily white, male subjects (Gilbert, 1992; Gilligan, 1988; Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1990; Kaschak, 1992; Richardson & Johnson, 1984). The possible impact of gender bias upon adolescent research and theory needs to be addressed. When theories developed using male subjects as the norm are applied to female subjects, different results often emerge. Gilbert (1992) states, "Gender refers not only to biological sex but also to the psychological, social, and cultural features and characteristics that have become strongly associated with the biological categories of female and male" (p. 385). Theories of gender differences are in the early stages of development and empirical research is still insufficient. Miller (1986) proposed a theory of women's development that highlighted the importance of relationships to women and normalized this, in contrast to traditional theories which promoted autonomy and separation as goals of healthy development. If society values autonomy and separation over relationships, does this impact on adolescent females' sense of self or feelings of empowerment?

Two important psychological constructs that have been found to influence many aspects of the adolescent's life are self-esteem and locus of control. These personality variables have been used in many research studies and some of the findings of these studies are reviewed here.


Harter (1990a) defined self-esteem as "how much a person likes, accepts, and respects himself [sic] overall as a person" (p. 255). Harter (1990a, 1990b) presented two different theoretical views of self-esteem that both she and Rosenberg (1989) supported in their separate research. The first is from William James who viewed self-esteem as a ratio of a person's perceived success in a certain domain to the importance the person attaches to success in that domain. The second theoretical view is that of C. Horton Cooley who considered self-esteem as originating with the person's perceptions of how significant others viewed the self.

The relationships between self-esteem and other variables have been extensively researched. Low self-esteem has been correlated with low life satisfaction, loneliness, anxiety, resentment, irritability, and depression (Rosenberg, 1985). Blyth & Traeger (1988) found a correlation between high self-esteem and perceived intimacy with parents. High self-esteem has also been correlated with academic success in high school (O'Malley & Bachman, 1979), internal locus of control, higher family income, and positive sense of self-attractiveness (Griffore, Kallen, Popovich, & Powell, 1990).

The first large-scale study of adolescent self-esteem was conducted by Morris Rosenberg (1989) in the early 1960s. …


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