One of the developmental phenomenon widely observed in youth is the personal fable. This concept holds that adolescents believe themselves to be special and unique making common experiences personalized to their understanding.
Adolescents often behave as if they are immortal, taking wild risks and placing themselves in dangerous situations without pause. They may also seem to be beyond solace in even commonly experienced situations believing no one has ever faced their pain before.
The Concept of the Personal Fable
This behavior may have roots in a concept known as the personal fable first proposed by David Elkind is a special kind of egocentric thinking specifically observed in the teenage years.
The personal fable leads teens to have feelings including:
All experiences are unique, nothing happens to anyone else like does to me.
My experiences are special, no one can understand what I go through.
My feelings are unique, no one has ever felt as I do.
Nothing bad will happen to me, accidents only happen to others.
Three special challenges arise from teens lost in the personal fable. First, they may be more apt to engage in high risk behaviors. Because teenagers tend to think of themselves as unique and above the reaches of common everyday accidents, they may place themselves in dangerous situations.
Teenager may also be more likely to engage in experimental use of drugs and alcohol. Because teens may feel they are unlikely to suffer negative experiences, they may be more likely to drink or use. Add the novelty appeal of the first time experience of the effects of alcohol or drugs, parents face a double challenge in this area.
Also, teenagers may have difficulty believing expressed empathy from others. When a parent says, "I know exactly how you feel", the teenager, lost in the personal fable, will respond, "You are wrong, no one has ever been as sad as I have."
Overcoming the Fable
Parents can help teens become more grounded in reality and more likely to move beyond the personal fable by helping them make real world connections to actions and consequences.
An important tool is to use peers in making connections for the teenager. Because social factors strongly influence teen behavior, their peers make a strong reference group. Even the most self-centered teenager generally has friends. These friends have certain bonds with the teen.
Parents can attempt to bridge the gap between reality and personal fable thinking by using experiences of peers. This is especially helpful if the peer relates the consequences of certain actions directly to the teen.
Parents may also have an effect in slowly breaking down the egocentric teenager by making sure to use "I" language when approaching the teen. Making statements beginning with "I feel" or "I think" set up the claim of the belief as being the parents. Rather than missing the mark completely by using phrases "You should think" or "You should feel", using I language differentiates between who the feelings belong to. If parents claim the feelings as theirs, they are not deflected by the teens belief that only they can understand their feelings.
Parents will also be will served by making contracts for behavior with teens who seem to be living under the personal fable. If the teen has made a commitment to behave a certain way and has agreed to the consequences, there is little room for argument.
Parents can also help the teen practice empathy. By encouraging teenagers to take the perspective of others, the parent opens the idea of the teenager's own problems being understood by somebody else. Parents should look for opportunities to ask the teen how they think a group feels. Current news events are a good example. As the teenager explores the idea of perspective taking, parents should encourage by agreeing with appropriate insights of the teen.
The personal fable concept is a step in the adolescent's development. It serves to allow teens to have a sense of control and make sense of their world. However, it can prove to be a liability in several areas including risk taking behavior and emotional empathy. Parents can have a positive effect in connecting their teens with reality through using social influence and specific behavioral techniques.
Dr. Reece W. Manley, DD, M.Ed., MPM, is author of two books and practices in Addison, Texas. His site is www.SpiritThinking.Net.