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Imaginary Audience and Personal Fable

On episode 8 of our podcast “One Day You’ll Thank Me”, Anna and I had an interesting mother-daughter conversation about the terms, Imaginary Audience and Personal Fable and how they show up in life for pre teens and teens.

In my work, I use these terms so often that I thought they were great topics to have a candid discussion on what this looks like in your kids and what you as parents can do to support your kid that may be experiencing these perceptions.

So let’s begin with what imaginary audience actually refers to?

This term coined by David Elkind, refers to teens who are super aware of how others view

themselves. They have this perception that everyone (usually peers) is looking at them and judging them. It can be really stressful to these kids. An example I love to share, was about a time that Anna and I were walking into Target together when Anna suddenly realized that she had a dollop of jam on her sweatshirt. Her reaction was one of total embarrassment, she was overly concerned that everyone in the entire store was going to see it and totally judge her. She walked hunched over throughout the store in hopes that no one would see this stain and think poorly of her. For a teen at this stage and experiencing these feelings it can be overwhelming and stressful.

As an adult you know that no one really cares that your daughter has a stain on her shirt, and at the same time it can be stressful as a parent too. Quite often the parents I work with will get concerned when their child acts this way because they fear their kids are preoccupied, self absorbed or even narcissistic. I have to reassure them that this way of thinking is age-appropriate and very typical during teen development.

What does the term personal fable refer to?

This is a term referring to a teens' tendency to think that their experiences are different and unique (even mainstream activities) in comparison to others. Oftentimes, these teens may interpret their circumstances as unique to the point where they are unlikely to experience "normal" consequences of behavior. They don't think that it will affect them, that they are immune to consequences. An example would be a kid that refuses to wear a helmet riding his bike because he thinks that he’s a great bike rider and nothing will happen to him. He’s special, no harm can come to him.

What we find on the other side of the coin, those kids that have this tendency to think they are special are able to use this perception in a positive, functional way. This type of belief that they are special and immune to negative circumstances can actually bolster a kids' ability to try something new and stressful.

Anna and I also discussed how personal fable may influence how teens cope with the stress of COVID-19. What I see in my clients in my practice and life in general, and Anna agrees that is what she sees in many of her peers, is that idea that this virus isn’t going to cause any negative consequences for them. They either feel that they won't get it at all, because they aren’t like everyone else, or the idea that if they do actually get it, it won’t be that bad and they will just get it over with. Which is scary for me to observe as the cases in our state of SC are still on the rise.

As I said about imaginary audience goes for personal fable, and that is these stages are normal and generally something that will pass.

What are some ways that you as a parent can support your teen in these types of behaviors and perceptions:

1) Be patient with your kids.

2) Validate their emotions without indulging in their irrational thinking.

3) Encourage them to tune in to their environment to notice what actually is going on.

4) Give them gentle reassurance.

To listen in on my discussion with my teen co-host Anna about these two subjects: Click Here

To learn more about Dr. Egan's online mini-course called "Managing Your Family's Technology and Social Media", created to help parents eliminate power struggles, keep your family safe from internet misuse, and reconnect with your family, please click RIGHT HERE.

To hear the podcast in its entirety go to COVID-19, Teens, & Social Media

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