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Adolescence and the Problems of Puberty

Puberty, the onset of sexual maturity, creates problems for adolescents.

Adolescence and puberty are not the same.

Adolescence is that 10- to 12-year period of social and psychological growth that transforms the dependent child (beginning in late elementary or early middle school) into a functionally independent young adult in his or her early to mid-twenties.

Puberty is the one to three-year process of hormonal and physical change that causes the young person to reach sexual maturity, girls usually entering it about a year earlier than boys.

Among other changes wrought by puberty, there are growth spurts that create bigger bodies to manage. For girls, hips broaden, breasts swell, menstruation begins, and they can produce eggs. For boys, muscles enlarge, voice drops, ejaculation begins, and they can produce sperm. For both males and females, there is more hair around sex organs, more body odor, and more active skin glands that can create acne.

Now young people as young as 10 to 14 are capable of participating in sexual reproduction, which doesn't mean that they immediately want to fulfill that potentiality. What it does mean, however, is that parents do need to start educating their son or daughter about socially managing sexual maturity and delaying sexual activity in a popular culture that glamorizes looking and acting sexual in every way.

This is no time for a young person to be uninformed about what is going on in their bodies because in ignorance they will believe they are unique and wonder what is wrong with them, when nothing is. This is a time for parents to explain the process of puberty that unfolds for everyone and what changes to expect.

An easy way to do this is for parents to search online for sites explaining puberty, find one that they like, and then read the information with their son or daughter, inviting any questions the young person may have. Normalize the process so the young person doesn't "abnormalize" themselves.

Adolescence does not depend on puberty to start. In fact, in most cases, adolescence begins first. Parents notice the negative attitude (more criticism and complaining), the passive and active resistance (more delay and arguments), and the testing of limits (more seeing what can be gotten away with) that are the hallmarks of early adolescent change. But when puberty does begin, the adolescent transformation becomes emotionally intensified and more complex.

Puberty now creates two problems in one. First, it creates a process problem: how to manage the physical changes that are besetting their bodies. This is the problem of self-consciousness. And second, it creates an outcome problem: how to act young manly or young womanly. This is the problem of sex-role definition.

Start with the problem of self-consciousness. For most young people, puberty catches them at a bad time — during the early adolescent years (around ages 9-13) when they are separating from the shelter of childhood and begin striving for social belonging and place among their society of peers. Already feeling adrift from family and at sea in this brave new world of more social independence, puberty demonstrates how they are also out of control of their bodies.

Developmental insecurity and early adolescence go hand in hand. For most young people, puberty is the enemy of self-esteem. It changes how they look at a time when physical appearance becomes more important for social acceptance and social standing.

As body shape and characteristics alter, they feel more vulnerable on that account, whether they are physically maturing too fast or not fast enough. This is the period when self-examination is microscopic, when any new blemish can be a source of misery, when it takes much longer to "get ready" to go out, when what to wear and how to groom absorb protracted attention.

At home, parents must remember that the changes of puberty are no laughing matter. The rule for parents is there must be no teasing, no joking, no making fun of self-preoccupation, physical appearance, bodily change, or choice of dress. There is enough of this torment from peers who are all suffering from similar insecurities themselves.

Early adolescence is an age of intolerance, where perceived differences or departures from the dominant or desired norm are not treated kindly. Now a young woman or young man can be teased and picked on for not looking womanly or manly enough. A painfully self-conscious early adolescent can take this social cruelty very personally. "What's wrong with me?" "I hate how I look!" "I'll never fit in!" Self-esteem can plummet when being teased causes a young person to become self-rejecting.

Or there can be a vulnerability to rumoring that can come from appearing so mature so young — peers gossiping that because you look so sexually mature you are prepared to act that way. So now you have a sexual social reputation.

At this juncture, parents need to help the young person evaluate this cruelty for what it is. "Being teased or rumored this way shows nothing wrong with you, but it shows a lot wrong about them. They are ridiculing what they fear being attacked about themselves, and they are choosing to at mean. This mistreatment is about them, not about you."

Now consider the problem of sex-role definition. While adolescence begins growth toward more independence, puberty adds another dimension to this journey — the need to claim one's young manhood or young womanhood. But where are young people supposed to learn these definitions?

Certainly, there are models in the family if older siblings and parents are available to provide salient examples to follow. Even so, these are not the most commanding images at hand. It is the cultural ideals for being a man and being a woman that young people find most alluring, ideals portrayed in the images and messages and icons that media advertising and entertainment constantly communicate.

To approximate these young manly and young womanly attributes means incorporating some of them into one's desired appearance. So come puberty, the social/sexual stereotypes kick in as young women worry about weight and thinning down their bodies by dieting, and young men worry about muscle size and strengthening their bodies by lifting weights.

And now social role definition is added to the mix. According to stereotype, the male is encouraged to be sexual aggressor, the female is encouraged to be sexual attractor. You can literally see these images played out at the middle and high school football games, for example, where young men bulk up to play a collision sport in front of young women who dress and dance in form-fitting clothing to cheer them on. These are very incomplete sex role definitions.

After puberty, young women who are not deemed attractive enough by their peers, and young men who are not deemed aggressive enough by their peers, can feel punished by being told and shown how they are not measuring up — girls for being too fat, boys for being too weak.

Hopefully, at this juncture, parents can help their son or daughter escape the pressure of these dehumanizing sex role definitions by explaining a more healthy way to grow. For example, they could say something like this:

"Don't pay too much attention to what the popular sexual stereotypes have to say about how you should be because when it comes to appreciating human variation; they're very restrictive. The truth is, there are as many good ways to be a woman as there are women. There are as many good ways to be a man as there are men. And your job is to discover and develop a good way to be womanly or manly that fits and fulfills the authentic person you want to become."

A final word needs to be said about early puberty, a reality that affects girls a significant number of girls. When puberty begins prior to the usual onset of adolescence (around ages 9-13) it can put a girl at a serious disadvantage, for several reasons:

  1. Not yet ready to separate from childhood, altered appearance makes it look like she is. Wearing a bra and menstruation mark her as physically older than is psychologically the case.
  2. In consequence, she is now physically out of step with most of her peers and to a painful degree can be socially set apart and feel lonely. Maybe she starts associating with older girls with who she shares more physical similarities, and now older social pressures come to bear.
  3. She can become sexually suspect based on her early maturing body — envied and teased by other girls, joked about by male peers, and become the object of unwanted sexual attention from older boys. Even adults can look at her with suspicion, censoring her for acting so sexual by appearing so womanly at such a young age. How old she looks is how old she is treated.
  4. Now, like it or not, her journey to young womanhood has begun because now she starts wondering and worrying about whether her body will approximate the ideals of sexual body type portrayed in the media that pressure her to resemble the popular icons that are paraded in this cruelly exploitive world.
  5. And of course, she feels anxious as her body changes in ways that are beyond her young power to control.

Early puberty is not for the faint of heart.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence.

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