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International Journal of Adolescence and Youth

ISSN: 0267-3843 (Print) 2164-4527 (Online) Journal homepage:

Adolescent Relationships in a Period of Change: A

New Zealand Perspective

Wilhelmina J. Drummond

To cite this article: Wilhelmina J. Drummond (1991) Adolescent Relationships in a Period of

Change: A New Zealand Perspective, International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 2:4,
275-286, DOI: 10.1080/02673843.1991.9747685

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International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 1991, Vol. 2, pp. 275-286
0267-3843/91 $10
1991 A B Academic Publishers
Printed in Great Britain

Adolescent Relationships in a Period of

Change: A New Zealand Perspective

Wilhelmina J. Drummond

Department of Education, Massey University, Palmers/on North, New Zealand

This paper reviews current trends in the study of human relations in the special
field of the adolescent period of life span development. It considers the nature of
adolescent relationship, to oneself, to family, particularly to parents and siblings,
and the peer group. Recent theoretical and empirical views of these relationships
are discussed with a focal point on the New Zealand situation. As studies of
adolescent relationships are only just beginning in New Zealand, an important
feature of this paper is the integration of the limited New Zealand information
available into the schema of the field. Similarities are observed between the New
Zealand adolescent experience and the American models.

'It's scary starting relationships ... I'm not very confident of how
they're reacting to me, whether I've made a good impression or not.
It's fun though. I've found I enjoy that part almost as much as the
relationship because it's real excitement and it's scary and you're
risking things .. .'

Alison Gray, Teenangels, N.Z.

Adolescence is a period filled with mixed feelings of excitement

and apprehension about one's new relationships in wider society
outside the family environment. Through learning to negotiate
these networks, there is some promise of an assured place in the
future world of adulthood. But in the process, young people are
caught by the pull of two powerful forces-the transformation of
close relationships with parents, family members, and the
challenge of new relations with peers and friends outside home.
Here they must work through each interpersonal area to the point
where integration of self is unified so that it will substantially be
shared by people in the community.
In this transition from childhood to adulthood, the young


person who has been experiencing a decade of growth and

maturation is no longer a child, but by the same token is not yet
considered an adult either. The movement away from strong
dependency on family which started in childhood, accelerates at a
more rapid pace, accompanied by an increasing significance of the
peer group. Dependency behaviours and responses of childhood
need to be shaken-off, replaced by a more responsible commit-
ment to oneself and others, an ever greater involvement with the
wider world which offers opportunities and incentives for
By relating to other people, adolescents learn to acquire a
concept of themselves, a perspective of others, and a knowledge of
how to act in social situations. An understanding of how
interpersonal relationships in adolescence evolve will shed light on
how young people in transition adapt to their new situation.


The first thing that needs to be considered is the relationship

adolescents have with their own changing self. Growing
adolescents experience develomental changes which bring about a
re-consideration of self-concept-such various thoughts and
feelings they have about themselves. They increasingly become
aware of their evolving images differing from those of other
teenagers, contrasting with older people around them. It is a
common occurrence for young people to stare at a full-length
mirror and gaze at themselves for a long time.
In addition, advancing mental processes allow them to begin
appreciating the psychological and social complexities of living
(Rebok, 1987). New experiences create a great deal of uncertainty,
'Who am I?', 'Where do I belong?'. Such questions arise because
these changes bring about a shake in the concept of self. Puberty
evokes all modes of tension, gratification and defenses which were
not commonly expressed previously in middle childhood. The
urgent need to retain equilibrium causes a young person's
awkward struggle to synchronize the sudden jolting of the inner
private self with the moving outer social and environmental
Old patterns of behaviour, attitudes, values, undergo consider-
able transformation while painstaking learning and assimilation of
new ones take place. An adolescent's body undergoes marked
physical changes and is flooded with sexual impulses. The young
person confronts both imminent intimacy with the other sex and

an immediate future filled with conflicting possibilities and

choices. Before adolescents can regain a personal sense of unity
they must incorporate their new physical, sexual attributes and
the opportunities they present into a new self-concept (Schell and
Hall, 1983). This addresses the first question 'Who am I?' But the
answer to the second question 'Where do I belong' will only be
found in the context of relationships with family, peers, friends,
and society, something that clearly suggests a developing concern
beyond the self.


Who else but one's family of parents, caregivers, siblings, close
relatives, provide the vital social relationships and settings for
young people to grow to maturity? In New Zealand, the kind of
family teenagers have varies from 'nuclear', to one parent, to those
living in extended families closely involved in their whanau or
a'iga. Some have a step-parent, step-brothers, step-sisters, are
adopted, or are in foster homes, live in flats or community houses.
A handful live on the streets with their mates (Gray, 1988). There
is great variety.
The challenges of adolescence necessitates young people to
question the main source that has provided them with their
identity during childhood, that is, their parents. This questioning
tends to make it difficulty for the adolescent to draw on family
support, for parents cannot help but react to their sudden
attitudinal and behavioural changes, not to mention the dramatic
physical changes in their children. At puberty, there is a noticeable
conflict when mother and son increasingly interrupt each other,
resulting in interaction becoming more contentious (Steinberg,
1983). As girls reach menarche, they tend to resist family rules and
standards and feel that their mothers do not accept them (Hill and
Colleagues, 1985). Mothers feel their daughters are not suf-
ficiently involved in the family activities. In a way, the strength of
affectional bonds between parents and adolescents which have
been established in childhood are put to a test.
During adolescence, young people become partially emancipated
from the emotional support of their parents. They no longer want
to be 'mothered'. This doesn't mean the parent-adolescent
relationship which was maintained from childhood necessarily
ends. Rather, through individuation (Cooper, Grotevant and
Condon, 1983), it continues at another level, where connectedness
becomes less based on authority and there is increasing respect for

one another as persons. Overall, for both sons and daughters,

parents still tend to assert a position of authority in the changing
relationship, but adolescents can also participate in cooperative
decision making with their parents.
Mothers appear to be central in the family communication
network. In New Zealand, mothers are mainly responsible for
keeping communication going within families (Gray, 1988). Sons
and daughters are generally known to talk more to mothers than
fathers and vice versa, perhaps because, fathers are away from
home a lot.
The father-daughter relationship is more directed towards
limited communications on social issues and advice from father on
practical matters and daughter's behaviour. Between fathers and
sons, there are more shared activities in the domains of sports,
recreation and work. While young people are on the whole more
distant from their fathers than their mothers, daughters are even
more distant from fathers than are sons. Some fathers encourage
and support their daughters, but this support appears to come
from a distance, lacking in overt emotional content. One can
imagine the difficulty an adolescent girl living with a single-parent
father does have in talking to him about personal matters. The
predominant notion of boys talking to fathers while girls
concentrate talking to mother on personal, social matters
continues to be confirmed in annals of adolescent studies (Norell,
The relationship of sons and daughters to their mothers
advances further in cooperation and reciprocation than it
generally does in the paternal relationship. It tends to present a
complex picture of sons and daughters talking to their mothers
about personal as well as nonpersonal issues such as vocational
choices. Adolescents express central concern for social life,
emotional fluctuations, self-doubts and mothers respond by
showing concern. Mothers' willingness to make self-disclosures
and meet their emotional needs extends the relationship to a
combination of authority, equality, intimacy and conflict. This
transformation into a new mode is supported by mothers' taking
seriously the expressive domain in which they meet adolescents
on their own terms (Youniss and Smollar, 1985).
The parent-adolescent relationship is a product of social co-
construction with a tendency toward mutual procedures (Wright
and Keple, 1981). Both parties are constantly involved, each
making concessions here and there, sometimes succeeding and
sometimes failing to understand another's point of view. The
confidence with which adolescent and parents will come to terms

with this new situation and jointly work it out, will depend in large
part on the social, intellectual, and emotional climate that is
fostered in the home.


Adolescence is a time when brothers and sisters can grow

particularly closer together. The continuing contact between
siblings provides a linking sense of security, belonging and
attachment to mother and father in the inner circle of family
relationships. Imprinted in their joint history are times when they
have daily been exposed to each other's ways and whims in the
familiar private world of home. No doubt, growing up with a
sibling influences adolescent development.
Sibling relations have an emotional power unfolding in early
childhood, penetrating into adolescence. A complex interplay of
closeness and affection, conflict, rivalry, and jealousy continues to
glue or loosen family ties, shaping individual personalities.
In their search for a meaningful self, adolescent brothers and
sisters become increasingly significant to one another. Against the
backdrop of their parental ideals, they eyeball each other, and
compare notes on those attributes that are desirable or
undesirable. The opportunities for identification with one another
increases (Bank and Kahn, 1982). Out of a growing desire to be
recognized, to feel separate and unique, yet also feel close and be
similar to others, each brother and sister will continue to propel
himself/herself in and out of the sibling relationship, progressively
solidifying their personal identity.
Young sibs have a much freer choice of whether they will be
with each other, what will be the nature of their transactions.
They are increasingly left on their own by their parents to actively
determine the changing shape of their relationships. They are now
more in charge of unfolding the intricate processes that determine
their identity.
The understanding and experience which comes with ado-
lescence allows for brother and sisters to grow more fully and
closer to each other. They are now better capable of teaching,
supporting and imitating one another, exploring issues through
intense discussion, even providing mutual boy and girl friends for
Siblings help each other through their emerging sexuality,
making and keeping friends, getting and holding jobs, verifying

the reality of their lives. Through continuing joint experiences,

close personal relationships and intimacy can develop, deepening
the emotional foundation laid in earlier childhood, which
continues to grow. This is significant, considering most people
have living siblings until the very end of their lives.
There is a dramatically wide range of relationships between
siblings. In many families, interactions are warm, supportive,
playful and affectionate. In others, fierce competitiveness conflict
or hostility predominate in a negative atmosphere. Realistically, a
mixed pattern of these positive and negative scenarios is more
representative of most sibling relationships. But violence in sibs
cannot be ruled out (Strauss and Colleagues, 1980; Gray, 1988).
Although it is not often easy to distinguish its forms from rough
play, there are many unlawful sibling incidents which happen
'behind closed doors'.
Sib variations due to birth order, age gap and gender have
traditionally been stressed to explain dominance, power and
caregiving, particularly in first-born children, and no doubt they
have their place in explaining the differences. For example, in birth
order, the complexities of being an older or younger adolescent
sibling needs to be understod over a lifetime of events. While older
ones may be more privileged, more powerful by their sheer size,
younger siblings can have the advantage of learning what they
shouldn't do by watching their older brothers and sisters tests
their parental limits and fail at it.
The personalities of the individual siblings (Bank and Kahn,
1982) and quality of parental monitoring of sibling relationship in
adolescence are also of major significance in the development of
relationships in adulthood. More importantly, the quality of a
sibling relationship is linked to each child's relationship with
mother and/or father. When parents overemphasize success,
rivalry often causes the sibling's break in their relationship or a
weak and negative bonding. Parental dislike of one child may
alienate the siblings from that child; alternatively, siblings may
show their resentment in spiteful and angry ways to the child who
is favoured by the parent.
One of the issues in New Zealand families is the strong feelings
teenagers have about differential treatment of children. Older
adolescents complain their youngest brothers and sisters are less
pressured, younger ones resent the lack of privilege. Boys get into
strife over trivial issues around the house (Hamid and Wylie,
1980). Girls complain strongly about having less freedom than
their brothers who can stay out till late at night. There is still a
strong double standard on the issue of sex with a strong message
about dangers of getting mugged, raped, or getting pregnant.

Sibling bonds may be strengthened or weakened for many

reasons. Change for one. More dramatically, a sudden death in the
family, divorce, crisis, physical separation, can mean the severe
loss of a loved one. Change need not necessarily be so sudden.
Growth towards maturity can be continuous and siblings can keep
an even pace with each other. But relationships can change
sharply. One could leap ahead and become so different that sibling
relationships will be fundamentally, and perhaps irrevocably
altered. A sibling becomes economically independent, finds a peer
group, gets married. When one sibling starts to act differently,
transformations in perceived identity means it will be difficult for
them to behave together in ways that were once customary,
rewarding, and familiar. With any marked change in a sibling, a
brother or sister will experience a sense of loss if they are no
longer able to play or talk together in the same old ways. Both
sadly realize their twosome will never be so close again, but they
do not necessarily lose contact or affection for each other.
A close younger sib might resist change in a teenage brother or
sister. Parents also can be conservative and resistant to their
perception of change in their adolescent children, to the
recognition that their child is now old enough to leave home
(Haley, 1980). Under these circumstances, one or both may have
to stop or re-evaluate; the process requires tolerance, understand-
ing, and mutual acceptance of conflict and change (Rosenblatt,


In adolescence, a relationship at another level evolves-that of

peer group and friends. The peer group provides an important
context for mutual friendships to emerge. Young people
increasingly turn to each other to learn the new ways of behaving,
to share their fluctuating moods, to make connections with the
opposite sex. There is a lot of uncertainty about commitment to
adulthood. Relationship with parents and family is still maintained,
but peer groups and friends offer a different vista from which to
explore new ways of sharing oneself with other members of
society. This helpful sharing of mutual interests has a certain
quality of loyalty that enables young people to come to grips with a
deeper, more intimate friendship with someone else later on.
The peer group is not new to adolescents. As they have grown
through the years, young people of similar age have played
together, developed their own patterns of interacting, become less
dependent on their parents and more dependent on themselves for

sharing common activities. In this way they learn to move out of

egocentric self-centredness towards a more balanced recognition
of others by communicating more interactively with a social group
of their kind.
They must now actively negotiate through interpersonal
networks of peers in order to establish a place in adolescent
society. With increasing capabilities, there is more opportunity for
reciprocal, cooperative co-construction of friendship, a shift from
the unilteral, parental authority of childhood.
A widening social world for adolescents means, they in-
creasingly spend more time with other teenagers, classmates and
friends. They get together usually during the weekends to watch
TV, talk about all sorts of things; diet, fashion, sports, who is going
out with whom, health problems, puzzlements about sex. Their
main concerns are personal and immediate, but big moral issues
such as, nuclear testing, saving the seals, and meaning of life are
treated seriously too. They join the peace movement, student
pressure groups, knowing they are contributing toward a cause.
The setting for most adolescent peer relationships in New
Zealand is the immediate neighbourhood, centre of town, and
secondary school. In the confines of a classroom, playground, hall,
and through outside activities, youth of similar age, Form, and
status, find themselves in a common place where they swap
information, rehearse adultlike roles, experiment on ideas and
behaviours sometimes taboo to mainstream society.
Young people are conscious that people around them can play a
significant role in their lives. Peers become a significant reference
group (Ganter and Yeakel, 1980). They are the testing ground for
comparing earlier beliefs, values and feelings which are raised to
consciousness for re-examination especially during this time of
life. By comparing themselves with other persons at school, in the
neighbourhood, they are better able to assess their own
maturation and match it with others' expectations. They learn
more complex concepts about themselves and people, develop
more sophisticated prosocial ways of entering adult society.
At school, peer relations are formed on a more stable basis and
these groups take a more obvious structure where there are rules
for achieving status, expected behaviours for retaining member-
ship (Sprinthall and Collins, 1988). The peer group is maintained
by certain processes of social acceptance, hierarchical structure,
dominance-submission, and friendship patterns. Often these are
strongly affected by existing social arrangements and norms of
Structurally, there are known patterns of peer groups

formation. In the beginning of adolescence, peer group influence

increases. At first one sees pockets of all boys and all girls grouping
around each other in corners of a room, walking, talking together.
Most early adolescents have the opportunity to find friends of
either sex but tend to be closer with teenagers of their own
gender. Later on there is more mixing among the sexes, in small
groups. Then towards adulthood, couples comprising young men
and young women become more common. In late adolescence the
peer group influence decreases as friendships become increasingly
more stable. This move from same sex, to mixed, to couples of men
and women, from adolescence to early adulthood, structurally
forms the basis for important heterosexual relationships essential
for adult life.
Teenagers select friends who have similar values and interests.
They have similar aspirations, school results, spend much the
same time in their homework. Certain features such as physical
attractiveness is often positively related to positive peer relations.
Language also plays a special part in keeping one group separate
from another. Slang makes youth a culturally distinct subculture.
Confirmity is strong. There is an increasing power of the peer
group in middle adolescence. Pressure to be part of the group, to
have friends, to conform, is strong here in New Zealand (Kroer,
Adolescents have an urgent need to belong. They imitate one
another, (Adams and Gullota, 1989). They do the same things, talk
the same way, hold same attitudes, dress in the same style, keep
same interests. This has been found especially true among girls
(Jensen, 1985). The peer group can place acute pressure on the
adolescent, to compete, to smoke, drink, take drugs, engage in
sexual activities. Deviance from group norms is criticized and can
cause rejection.
In our society, teenage boys and girls have to work out their own
way of meeting with each other. They can choose who they go out
with but on the whole have to take the initiative themselves. In
organized school dances, sports trips, coffee bars, fast-food shops,
parties, night clubs-adolescents find the venue for male-female
relationships to wax and wane, or develop into something more
serious and permanent. Many teenagers go around in either mixed
or single-sex groups. In small towns where there is prone to be
gossip, meeting a likely partner can be difficult. But friends'
friends and siblings are nevertheless sources of contact (Gray,
Friendship has a special place within the peer group. Where
there is a lot more give and take in a relationship, the principle of

fair treatment facilitates movement towards intimacy, a more

exclusive focus between friends, an openness of self-disclosure,
and sharing of problems and advice.
Toward late teens, expectations of friendship vary from having
somebody reliable and trustworthy, to the notion of sex, romance,
filled with mystery and excitement. There are those who seek
adventure. Boys and girls expect different things from their
relationships. There are girls who lose a boyfriend by saying 'No'
to sex (Sparrow, 1978). There are boys complaining girls demand
too much exclusive attention, something they are not prepared to
give. There are those who have had their first sexual experience
before turning sixteen (Lewis, 1987). Neither can cope easily with
the pressure sexuality puts on their friendship. Young people are
still prone to underestimate the emotional aspect of more intimate
friendship with the opposite sex-and roles in this relationship are
not yet clear.
Friendships become increasingly more stable and important
between early to late teens. Although there is always potential for
conflict, norms develop to help avoid or minimize possible
embarrassment. Over time friends renegotiate their relationship,
revise them. There are many adolescent friendships which last a
lifetime. But friendships are often subjected to changes. Young
people leave school to join the work force, or study at another
institution, some get married, some feel the old friendship is no
longer appropriate. Sometimes they break their friendships, or
simply drift away from one another. They can be ended by
external and internal forces that drive friends apart-a change of
values, a shift to another town, the attraction of another friend,
marriage, death of a friend by violence, accidents, natural causes,
overdose of drugs.


Adolescence is the life stream of human experience linking

childhood to adulthood. What flows is reconciliation of a new sense
of individuality with the past while accepting the expansion of
social relationships. Integration of a self so unified to be
substantially shared by people in the community is not an easy
task to accomplish. The road to adulthood must be negotiated
through these interpersonal networks of family, siblings, peers,
and others. In the first instance, the sense of personal integration
and coherence, a major achievement of adolescence, will depend in
large part on the quality of family relationships.

The idea of parents, children and siblings negotiating, coming to

a joint agreement on behavioural guidelines is worthwhile
considering. With adolescents being quite capable of making
responsible decisions, they respond quite well to parents trusting
in them, rather than having house rules imposed without
consultation. It does take time and patience to work through this
process, where parents have to willingly give up some control, and
assertive teenagers be willing to compromise. Good communica-
tions, feeling of security and belonging and adaptability to change
are essential. In this way, young people are listened to and in turn
can talk easily to their parents. Parents have to recognize that
many young people want to go out more with their friends and
often prefer to be with them.
Adolescents need to be given the opportunity to think in
complex and mature ways about other persons and interact
successfully with their peers. Through these relationships, they
will recognize social realities from their own point of view as well
as others and will be prepared for a deeper relationship at a one-to-
one level as they approach the next stage of their life span.

'I scrutinized my conscience and prodded the truth out of it. I was
surprised at how easily the answer slid into my mind, once I had
removed the barriers of everyone else's influence'.

Brian Shaw and Kathy Broadley,

The New Zealand Experience.


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