How a Personal Fable Is Defined and Why It Can Lead to Risk-Taking

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Your child will go through numerous stages while they are on the road to puberty. It's not uncommon for middle school and high school students to develop a "personal fable." Such a fable is a common teen and older tween belief that arises from adolescent egocentrism, which develops between the ages of 10 and 13.

The personal fable is the adolescent's belief that they are highly special and unlike anyone else who has ever walked the earth. Colloquially, these individuals are known as "special snowflakes." In other words, the adolescent thinks that since others are so obviously fascinated by them (adolescent egocentrism), they must be a unique individual (the personal fable).

Learn more about this development of adolescent identity and the potential consequences it can result in with this review of the personal fable.

Why Personal Fables Are Normal But Can Be Risky

If you suspect that your tween or teen has developed a personal fable, don't worry that your child will grow up to be a narcissist or self-centered. Belief in the personal fable is a developmentally normal cognitive limitation. Unfortunately, the belief can have serious consequences.

The personal fable can cause a tween or teen to believe that nothing bad could possibly happen to someone as exceptional as themself. In other words, since they are so special, they must be invulnerable.

Some research has shown that belief in the personal fable and one's invulnerability is connected to common adolescent risk-taking behaviors, such as promiscuous or unprotected sex, use of alcohol or illicit drugs, as well as physically dangerous acts, such as driving without a license or driving recklessly or while intoxicated.

You may need to consult with a counselor, therapist or another mental health professional to help your child counter these behaviors. At the very least, you and your tween should have an ongoing dialogue about risk and safety.

On the other hand, personal fables also result in tweens and teens believing that they are omnipotent, or have enormous power, lacking in others. This belief can actually improve the way a child adjusts to changes or challenges in life and can improve self-worth.

The Difference Between Personal Fables and Self-Esteem

Belief in the personal fable should not be confused with having high self-esteem. Tweens or teens with low self-esteem usually still hold a version of the personal fable.

In fact, they may even perceive their critical self-judgments as "evidence" of their particular uniqueness—no one thinks quite as critically as they do. In other words, adolescents with a personal fable may typically believe they are special, even if they don't necessarily think of themselves as "good" or "special."

The Origins of the Term "Personal Fable"

Psychologist David Elkind was the first to describe the adolescent phenomenon known as the personal fable. Elkind coined the term in his 1967 book Egocentrism in Adolescence.

Elkind's characterization of the adolescent experience builds on Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development. This theory illustrates how teens do not differentiate between themselves and others, leading them to think that others are as obsessed with them as they are obsessed with themselves.

Piaget also found that the adolescent mental state is not rooted in reality. With this in mind, Elkind used the term personal fable to describe the untrue stories adolescents tell themselves about their place in the world.

7 Sources
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Additional Reading

By Rebecca Fraser-Thill
Rebecca Fraser-Thill holds a Master's Degree in developmental psychology and writes about child development and tween parenting.