Vivian Seltzer has spent decades developing
and testing a theory that she believes is “the first
roadmap through adolescence.”
BY SAMUEL HUGHES
And so they gather, these strange, familiar creatures in their ever-shifting habitat. Traveling in flocks and packs, they eye one another warily, constantly, checking out their plumage and song, finally turning to the puzzling creature reflected in the glass to gauge where in the pecking order they stand. And if that reflection falls short of what they had envisioned, if the collective gazes prove too withering, they fly off, by themselves, crests fallen …
We know them, and yet we don’t know them. Though they feed at our table, and accept our shelter, they ignore us as much as they can; we are, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. Yet we regard them with powerful affection, as well as bemusement and exasperation. After all, we were once those strange birds, and we know how fickle, even cruel, the species can be. And while they may not realize it, or want to admit it, they are slowly evolving into something like us.
It is the adolescent dialectic, and it is an inexorable force.
“When adolescence starts, there’s an imperative that begins to operate,” Vivian Center Seltzer SW’53, professor emerita of human development and behavior in the School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2), is saying. “It’s an imperative to be together—a growth-related imperative. And when they are together, then this whole big process goes into subliminal action. There’s a force that becomes ignited. That force is psychological growth, and it’s ignited by the electricity of the comparison behavior that goes on between them.”
Seltzer has been studying the vulnerable species known as the human adolescent for better than half a century now. Much of that time has been spent crafting a unique and cogent view of it, buttressed with research and clinical observation.
At the heart of her work is the theory of Dynamic Functional Interaction (DFI)—which spotlights the “central role of adolescent peer groups as a peer arena,” as she puts it, and the impact of that arena on adolescent social development. She has written three books on the subject, the most recent and accessible of which is last year’s Peer-Impact Diagnosis and Therapy: A Handbook for Successful Practice with Adolescents (NYU Press). It serves as a detailed guidebook and contour map to adolescents and their precarious habitat, the Peer Arena.
The DFI theory takes up where developmental psychologist Erik Erikson and social psychologist Leon Festinger left off, roughly half a century ago, in their respective examinations of adolescent identity-building and social comparison. On a visceral level (at least to this gut-tossed parent of two adolescents), the theory resonates. For those in the field—some of them, anyway—what sets it apart and makes it fresh is the quality of the synthesis, the thought behind the organizational framework, and the amount of research, not just on American adolescents but in places as far-flung as Costa Rica, Scotland, and the Philippines. Peer-Impact Diagnosis and Therapy also offers an exhaustive list of protocols for practitioners, including a step-by-step approach to the group-therapy treatment she developed called the Peer Arena Lens.
Unlike the prevailing view of adolescents individuating by rebelling against parents, the DFI model posits that the “core of adolescent behavior” is created by “responses to psychological interactions with peers,” in Seltzer’s words. “Comparison dynamics, as adolescents assess and evaluate themselves in relation to their age-mates in order eventually to settle on the self they wish to have, forge the axis of the adolescent wheel.”
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COVER STORY: Alone Together By Samuel Hughes
Illustration by Justin Gabbard
©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette