Home Family & Relationship The Role of “Idols” in Adolescent Development

The Role of “Idols” in Adolescent Development

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During adolescence, we are faced with a path, more or less impervious and obscure, that leads each of us towards adulthood. In this period, it is natural to resort to models that help us decide in which direction to channel our efforts as we search for a new equilibrium.

The transition from adolescence to adulthood

Adolescence is often thought of as a transitional phase, a period with a clearly delineatable beginning and end. However, it is not a phase that vanishes forever; what we learn during this time is useful for our future. Its memories and effects persist throughout our lives, re-emerging during crucial moments and significant life stages.

Understanding the scope of change

In adolescence, we witness changes that affect us, and we comprehend their scope. It is a constructive period where we feel the need for coherence and unity. For the first time, our expectations are confronted with reality, often resulting in disappointments. These issues we face during adolescence (for example, choices, dilemmas, and relationships) continue to be part of our existential landscape. To manage them, it is essential to navigate through the typical crises of this age, knowing that they cannot be avoided.

The difficult process of differentiation

During adolescence, we restructure our self-image through cognitive and emotional changes. We achieve a more logical, formal, and self-reflective way of thinking. The adolescent crisis can happen at varying times, even in adulthood, or may never occur. Failing to experience it means remaining in a state of dependency that characterises childhood.

Rebellion as a life project

The quest for autonomy often involves rebelling against parents. Adolescents frequently reject parental expectations and adopt models viewed negatively by adults. This rebellion should not be considered solely negative; it should be viewed as a life project.

This defiance, which might involve rejecting parental expectations or embracing lifestyles and philosophies that are frowned upon by adults, is often misinterpreted as mere contrariness or aimless acting out. But it’s important to recognise that such rebellion is generally not an end in itself but rather a means to a greater end: the construction of an independent identity. In many cases, these acts of defiance serve as experimental phases where adolescents can explore alternative perspectives and values, even if they are controversial or negatively viewed by adults. Therefore, rather than dismissing this rebellion as mere teenage angst, it can be more productively understood as a “life project”, a critical chapter in the adolescent’s ongoing process of self-discovery and personal development.

Emotional fluctuations

Teens experience mood fluctuations and often feel listless, confused, and inadequate. Their concept of self is still forming, and they face low self-esteem due to the challenges and failures they encounter.

While the emotional ups and downs that teens go through can be disorienting, they are a natural part of the process of becoming an individual and should not be immediately pathologised. These fluctuations often reflect the adolescent’s internal struggle with identity formation, coupled with the external pressures of societal expectations and academic performance. As they navigate through both failures and successes, it’s important for teens to have supportive environments where they can learn resilience and self-compassion, which are crucial for long-term emotional well-being and self-esteem.

Facing the excess

In adolescence, situations often appear overwhelming and catastrophic. Teens harbour exaggerated and unrealistic expectations, making their confrontations with frustrations severe.

The tendency for adolescents to perceive situations as overwhelming or catastrophic can be attributed to their still-developing emotional regulation skills and cognitive perspectives. This phase of life often involves a clash between idealism and reality, where exaggerated and unrealistic expectations meet the often harsh lessons of real-world experience. Such confrontations with frustration, though severe, serve as invaluable learning opportunities that can help teens calibrate their expectations and develop a more nuanced understanding of life’s complexities.

The role of false leaders

Adolescence introduces the concept of a “false leader”, a substitute figure taking the place of a parent. The adolescent invests in this figure the omnipotence once attributed to parents. False leaders can lead to great disappointment and frustration because of the excessive importance placed upon them.

From crisis to self-identity

Through crises and disillusionment, the adolescent moves towards establishing their own identity and starts to trust in personal capabilities.

The journey to adulthood is often a rollercoaster of emotions, experiences, and realisations. The turbulence of adolescence can make or break a person’s sense of self, especially as they navigate through various crises and bouts of disillusionment. However, these challenging moments often serve as catalysts for growth, compelling the adolescent to question inherited beliefs and societal norms. This process of introspection and external evaluation is crucial for the development of a unique identity separate from family and community.

The reference figure and the myth

Having a reference figure is essential. If one can maintain an appropriate distance from this figure, it can have a positive effect and eventually fade away when no longer needed. Failure to do so can result in a blurred personal identity.

The presence of a reference figure, such as a mentor, parent, or older sibling, can be invaluable during the adolescent journey towards self-discovery and independence. This figure serves as a guiding light, offering wisdom and stability during times of uncertainty. But maintaining an appropriate emotional and psychological distance is key to ensuring that the relationship remains beneficial rather than constraining.

If boundaries are not established, there’s a risk that the adolescent may become overly reliant on this figure, which can stifle personal growth and blur the lines of their own emerging identity. Ideally, as the individual matures and gains self-assurance, the need for this reference figure diminishes, allowing the person to fully step into their own self-concept without external validation.


While adolescence carries risks, it is impossible and unwise to avoid having models or idols. Teens need to acquire moral models that are not only acceptable to society but also resonate with their personal needs and expectations. The concept of role models or idols serves an important function during adolescence, providing teens with a roadmap of traits or accomplishments they might aspire to. Completely avoiding such figures is not only impractical but also deprives teens of valuable inspiration and guidance.

What’s important is for adolescents to choose moral models that align not just with societal values, but also with their own emerging sense of self, needs, and aspirations. This balanced approach helps ensure that the role models serve as positive influences that enhance personal growth, rather than templates that limit individuality and self-expression.

As teens evolve, so too may their choice of models, reflecting their ongoing journey towards a mature and nuanced understanding of themselves and the world around them.

Annalisa Balestrieri holds a master’s degree in modern literature, with a psycho-pedagogical specialisation, from the State University of Milan.

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