Teenagers Need a Clear Sense of Identity

New family studies prof looks at why some at-risk youth succeed in society while others don’t

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Andrea Breen

Prof. Andrea Breen -- Phtoo by Amanda Scott

For Andrea Breen, it was a volunteer role she took on as an undergrad at McGill University that started her along the path to her current position as a faculty member in U of G’s Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition. While studying for her bachelor of education degree, she became involved in co-ordinating a Students for Literacy program in a locked youth detention facility. The experience of working with these teens ─ most of them just a couple of years younger than the university student volunteers ─ shifted her focus from education in a traditional school setting to wanting to find answers to questions about risk and resilience.

“In fact, I think that work changed the perspective of the volunteers involved more than the young people we were helping,” she says.

After graduation, Breen spent a year teaching English in the Czech Republic and traveling, then enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where she earned a master’s degree in risk and prevention. “In my research, I was looking at adolescents and their ability to see the perspective of other people, their understanding of their social interactions and how these are connected to risk-taking,” she says.

Breen then moved to Toronto and worked at a children’s mental health centre for four years, developing and supervising violence prevention and intervention programs for youth, including one for students who had been fully expelled from Ontario’s schools. The focus was on addressing both their mental health and educational needs. She also provided training workshops for people working with children and youth.

“All this time I was working with adolescents and still interested in questions about why some succeed in changing while others don’t. I would look at teens from gang-ridden neighbourhoods, where changing anti-social patterns of behaviour would mean cutting themselves off from the community and often from their own families. It was very difficult to change, yet some would do it; some would succeed,” Breen says.

Her experiences suggested to her that the child’s sense of identity might be a key component in determining his or her ability to overcome negative influences. With this in mind, Breen enrolled in OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) to complete a PhD in developmental psychology and education.

She was pregnant with her first child when she began her research, and this provided an unexpected connection with some of the young people she was working with. “A number of the youth I interviewed for my study disclosed that they, too, were pregnant.” This shifted Breen’s focus in the study; she decided to study young, pregnant women with a history of problematic behaviours to see how pregnancy affected their identity development and anti-social behaviours.

“I study identity predominantly through narrative, through the stories people tell about themselves and the meanings they give to what happens in their lives,” she explains. “In analyzing the stories from the women I interviewed, I found that pregnancy and early motherhood can provide a real opportunity for change.

“Most research has looked at the problems these young women can have, but there is remarkable variation in outcomes. Of the 27 women I interviewed, only two didn’t report positive changes to their anti-social behaviour.”

Breen found that an orientation to values that emphasize relationships with others was associated with less anti-sociality. “And the changes didn’t happen overnight; a lot of self-reflection was needed.”

Positive relationships were also critical factors. Having a clear sense of their own personal values and living in a way that was consistent with their values ─ whatever those values were ─ also seemed to promote positive change, says Breen.

She says Guelph will be an ideal location for her to continue her work. “I was attracted to the family relations and applied nutrition department because there are people here doing really interesting, high-quality research and great opportunities for collaboration.

“With my teaching background, I also love the University’s commitment to excellence in teaching. I’m especially looking forward to the opportunity to supervise the practicum component for students in the child, youth and family program.”

Now that she’s the mother of two young children, Breen also appreciates the on-campus child care options and being just minutes away from her son and daughter.