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Paloma Alonso Stuyck and Juan José Zacarés


Different meanings as a function of gender and age

Paloma Alonso Stuyck and Juan José Zacarés


Paloma Alonso Stuyck and Juan José Zacarés


Autonomy is an integral element of adolescent identity, and may be seen as an indicator of psychological maturity in this period that leads a person to decide how to think, to feel, and to act.
Different authors distinguish three changing dimensions to its development.

-Cognitive: decreases the influence of important others and of support of the criterion used to resolve moral, political, or social problems (Douvan and Adelson, 1966; Devereux, 1970; Kohlberg, 1973).

-Affective: redefinition and progressive reduction of paternal links (Elder, 1998; Ana Freud, 1958; Kandel and Lesser, 1972) and development of infantile relations (Douvan and Adelson, 1966).

-Behavioral: autonomous decision-making, the result of self-confidence, with the latter being its observable aspect (Greene, 1992; Feldman, 1990; Newman 1983; Rosenthal, 1995).

During the 1980s, a controversy arose in regard to the usefulness of the concept of emotional autonomy during adolescence. Steinberg (1986) argued that unlinking from parents was an integral part of maturity, while Ryan and Lynch (1989), said that it reflected a misplaced attachment. With self-esteem being an indicator of long-term adjustment (Offer, 1998), its correlation with autonomy may aid in clarifying its developmental meaning.

The purpose of the present study was to analyze the different meanings of behavioral and emotional autonomy in adolescence, as a function of gender and age, as well as their implications for education. We utilized a random sample with unknown probability, based on gender (two levels) and on age (3 levels), applied to a general population of school attending adolescents in Valencia. The definitive sample is composed of 567 adolescents (figure and Table 1).


1. Behavioral autonomy

As seen in Table 2, the adolescents believe that they are most independent in the behavior “Sports” (with this also being the item that presents the least variation) and that they are least autonomous in “Return Time”. Table 3 shows that, in terms of age, children feel progressively more autonomous as their adolescence progresses, while in terms of gender, the differences are not significant along the lines of Zani (1993). The second order affect (the interaction of gender/age) is not statistically significant.

Table 4 shows that although the factor analysis did not identify significant independent factors, a detailed analysis of each area of behavioral autonomy reveals suggestive differences. In order to carry out this analysis, a code was given to each behavior:

? = Moral: Questions related to human dignity
? = Conventional: subjects that aid family and social interaction
? = Personal: subjects of individual transcendence

Outcomes were organized according to the phase in which adolescence demonstrated the greatest autonomy, being organized in the following manner:

A) As a function of age: Believe that their autonomy for behaviors: Household chores and homework DOES NOT vary during adolescence.

3>2>1 However, for: Manners, Language, Smoking, Alcohol, Bedtime, and Money they feel gradually more autonomous during adolescence.
2>1 In the intermediary phase, adolescents are more autonomous than in the early phase for: Privacy, Sweets, Hygiene, Interests
3>2 While for : Church, Sexuality, and Clothes they feel more autonomous in the late phase of adolescence than in the intermediary phase.
3>1 For behaviors : Visits-Go Out -Friends, Appearance-Return Time and Sports they are more autonomous in late adolescence than in early adolescence.

B) In terms of gender:

M>V Girls feel more autonomous than boys in: Clothes, Manners, Appearance, Bedtime, and Hygiene.

V>M Boys feel more autonomous than girls in Return Time and Homework.

2. Emotional Autonomy

In Table 5, we have marked with an initial the indicator to which each item belongs, assessing whether adolescents consider themselves to be more autonomous on the individuation indicators (I), followed by Disidealization (D) and by non-dependence (D), shown in the table by dotted lines. This purely qualitative assessment shows us the sequence of subjects in regard to which adolescents consider themselves to be progressively more autonomous.

In general, the adolescents believe that their emotional autonomy is middle to high, with the mean values varying between 2.12 and 2.87, on a response scale of 1 to 4.

There are cases in which the behaviors over which the adolescents feel they have greater autonomy belong to the individuation indicator (marked in bold type in the table).

The greatest variability in responses occurs with the behavior “In some things, it is better to ask the advice of friends rather than of parents” (N), while the greatest consensus was for “My parents are almost never wrong” (D).

The ANOVA of the emotional and behavioral dimensions of autonomy controlled by age revealed that the adolescents were more autonomous in the late phase than in the middle phase, and more autonomous in the middle phase than in the early phase. One notes a growing developmental trend, as can be seen in Figure 2.

After having analyzed adolescent autonomy, its association with self-esteem can contribute to an understanding of the same.

3. Self-esteem

Table 6 contains descriptive statistics of the Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1963), arranged according to their mean value. In the upper part of the table are the negative items, with the positive items in the lower part.

This variable indicates the degree of personal satisfaction. According to Coleman (1994), one notes that adolescents have a positive view of as being of the same level as others, and that they feel themselves to be quite competent. One should note that the adolescents show the greatest self-esteem in the statement: “I think that I’m as good as any other person” and the least variability on “I think that I have a number of good qualities.” (shown in bold type in the table).

4. Correlation between autonomy and self-esteem
Table 7. Analysis to determine if there is a correlation between self-esteem and emotional autonomy (AE) and behavioral autonomy (AC) – according to gender and age.

The correlation between emotional and behavioral autonomy shows that:
• for girls, the two facets of autonomy develop together during the middle phase, and with incidence in the late phase.
• for boys, the strong association between the two facets are maintained throughout adolescence .

The correlation between emotional autonomy and self-esteem shows that:
• During adolescence, the more emotionally autonomous girls have less self-esteem, while for the boys, this association is only seen in the early phase.

The correlation between behavioral autonomy and self-esteem shows that:
• The degree of behavioral autonomy is not associated with the level of self-esteem of the adolescent.


-The developmental path of autonomy shows that, for girls, the two dimensions – emotional and behavioral – develop together during middle adolescence and with less incidence in the late phase, while for boys, the link is maintained throughout adolescence, although diminishing slightly.

-The analysis of behavioral areas revealed that girls see themselves as significantly more autonomous than do boys in questions related to aesthetics, while boys see themselves as more autonomous than to girls in terms of returning home at night, as establishing correlations between autonomy and self-esteem, we proved the lack of association between behavioral autonomy and self-esteem. While emotional autonomy is associated in girls to low self-esteem during the three phases of adolescence, for boys, this link is only present in the early phase. These outcomes are in harmony with those found by Beyers (1999) and Chen (1998), that associate emotional autonomy to low self-esteem in adolescence. In the present study, being not closely linked to parents always has a negative meaning for girls, while for boys, this negative connotation disappears in middle adolescence.

For this reason, the most relevant point of contrast between genders can be found in the association, more persistent in girls than in boys, between high emotional autonomy and low self-esteem throughout adolescence. The interpretations that different authors have suggested to explain this difference may be placed into two groups:

The first explanation, of a social nature, states that it is from this age that cultural stereotypes that attribute to males greater initiative and independence, and to females greater concern for relations are interiorized (Oliva, 2001).

The second explanation, with a more anthropological slant, states that this association is among the manifestations of different ways of being a person for women and men (Gilligan, 1982). The experience that contact with adolescents has provide, the verification of permanent divergence between men and women, leads me to prefer this second explanation.

1. It has been seen that the emotional and behavioral spheres of autonomy are differentiated, although referring to the same set of self-regulating psychological processes. Adolescents progress in autonomy throughout this period; however, the emotional facet shows a more marked presence during early adolescence, while the behavioral facet shows an progressive increase throughout the three phases.

2. Excessive emotional autonomy in the first phases of adolescence appears to be synonymous to “insecure attachment”, while during middle adolescence it has a more flexible meaning.

3. Although autonomy develops in a progressive fashion in girls and in boys, one notes differences in terms of gender in it’s internal process and meaning. In girls, the two facets of autonomy develop together in middle adolescence, and with less intensity in the late phase. For them, to be emotionally detached from their parents is related to a decrease in their self-esteem, with a negative meaning throughout all of adolescence. In boys, simultaneous development of the two facets continues throughout adolescence, but with this association gradually decreasing in intensity as adolescence continues. For them, the negative association between emotional autonomy and low self-esteem is only found in early adolescence.

4. Teaching that seeks to individualize education could derive practical consequences from the differences found herein, in order to adapt itself appropriately to feminine and masculine persona.

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Different meanings as a function of gender and age