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Adolescence expert Judith Smetana wins psychology career award

March 16, 2018
Judith SmetanaPsychology professor Judith Smetana is an expert in the development of moral and social reasoning, teen-parent relationships, and parenting beliefs. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)

Judith Smetana investigates and writes about the kinds of things that many parents of teenagers wonder about. First, there are the weighty questions: How do I know if my teen is telling the truth? Would he tell me if he had sex with his girlfriend? Did she drink alcohol at the party? And then there’s the more mundane: Did she do poorly on a test? How do I get him to clean up his room?

A professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, Smetana is an expert in the development of moral and social reasoning, teen–parent relationships, and parenting beliefs.

Now, she’s being recognized by her peers with the 2018 John P. Hill Memorial Award from the Society for Research on Adolescence.

The award recognizes her for her career contributions in the area of social and moral development during adolescence. The selection committee cited her numerous high-quality publications in top journals, as well as her leadership on edited volumes and original contributions to the field’s understanding of moral development, parent-adolescent relationships, parenting, and child development as particularly impressive.

“This prestigious award reflects Judi’s outstanding scholarship and contributions to our understanding of adolescent development,” says Loisa Bennetto, chair of the University’s Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology. “We’re thrilled that she’s receiving this well-deserved honor.”

Smetana says she feels “incredibly humbled to join a very distinguished group of scholars—many of whom were mentors to or role models for me.”

The author of Adolescents, Families, and Social Development: How Teens Construct Their Worlds (Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, England, 2010) and more than 200 articles serves as the director of the University’s PhD program in developmental psychology and is the editor of the academic journal Child Development Perspectives.

On the moral lives of adolescents—and toddlers

Recently Smetana has been concentrating more on children’s early moral development, studying how young children come to make judgments about right and wrong around issues of fairness and harm. With her graduate students Courtney Ball and Ha Na Yoo, as well as Marc Jambon ’15 (PhD), she has been examining the emergence of moral thinking in 2-year-olds, as well as whether young school-age children’s moral judgments vary when it comes to different peer relationships (for instance, when interacting with best friends versus disliked peers and bullies).

She is also nearing completion of a research project with colleagues from the University of Utah, Cecilia Wainryb and Stacia Bourne, together with Rochester graduate student Jessica Robinson, on adolescents’ narratives on disclosure and secrecy. Looking at middle, high school, and college students, the researchers are trying to understand what adolescents make of their experiences of disclosure, concealment, and lying to their parents.

“We know that adolescents tell their parents less and conceal more as they move through adolescence. But concealment is also associated with some negative adjustment outcomes for teens, such as increased depressive symptoms and problem behavior,” says Smetana. The team is interested in the lessons teens learn about themselves and their parents from withholding information, or lying, and when it’s best to simply come clean.

“Do they learn that they are good liars and can put something over on their parents, or do they feel guilty and feel that that’s not the person they want to be?” asks Smetana.

Although the findings are complex, the researchers conclude that, in general, when teens disclose to their parents when they have done something likely to meet with parental disapproval, it leads to psychological growth and a better understanding of themselves and their parents. When the teens actually tell their parents the truth, they often find their parents much more understanding than they expected.

Smetana also continues some of her previous research, accounting for possible similarities or differences across cultures. For example, she continues her collaboration with a colleague in Hong Kong, Jenny Yau, and her former Rochester advisee Wendy Rote ’14 (PhD), studying parental guilt induction around academic performance and moral issues in Hong Kong-Chinese parents of early and mid-adolescents.

“Guilting is really common in Chinese parenting, and we’re trying to understand whether teens think it’s effective or overly controlling, and whether this differs for academic versus moral issues,” Smetana explains.

A devoted mentor

Rote, now an assistant professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is among those who nominated Smetana for the career award. “She has made a tremendous contribution to the field’s understanding of adolescent development and adolescent–parent conflict,” explains Rote. “In particular, she has helped explain how parents and adolescents differently conceptualize issues, particularly their focus on personal versus risky or conventional aspects. She has shown that these conceptual differences and the lack of teen autonomy surrounding them underlie much of the parent–adolescent conflict.”

But Smetana has another, simpler virtue as well, according to Rote. When it comes to her former students, Smetana has a habit of keeping up with them–of “caring about them deeply,” Rote says.

Smetana will accept the Hill Memorial Award at the Society for Research on Adolescence’s biennial meeting in Minneapolis on April 12.

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