Puberty brings many physical, emotional, and behavioral changes and sets a child on the road to adulthood.
One Friday evening, Anne took her 13-year-old daughter, Jessica, to the local mall for a movie and dinner at Jessica’s favorite fast-food eatery. Strolling through the mall, they bumped into some of Jessica’s friends, a band of giggling girls wearing lots of Spandex and long, permed curls.
As Anne watched her daughter blend into the group, a bittersweet feeling arose within her. Jessica was on the brink of becoming an adult. Physically, she was quickly growing to resemble a woman. Emotionally, she had one foot lingering in childhood dependency, while the other was stepping forward to explore the uncharted ground. Although Jessica still required rules and guidance, another part needed to set her own pace and establish herself as a person distinct from her parents.
Although Anne and Jessica are fictional, they represent typical people dealing with the real physical, emotional, and sexual changes that characterize the once-in-a-lifetime experience we know as puberty. Despite having gone through puberty themselves, many parents appreciate guidance in understanding the transformation puberty brings to their children—particularly in light of the societal changes in the 1980s and 1990s that have made this transition to adulthood all the more challenging. Understanding the physiological and psychological components of puberty can often relieve any concerns that parents or children may have. And research conducted in the early 1990s provides greater insight into the physical and emotional development of adolescents and the variations that occur from child to child.
What is Puberty
Puberty may be narrowly defined as the point at which a person becomes capable of sexual reproduction. But both medical experts and laypeople tend to describe puberty as an extended passage during which many physical, emotional, and behavioral changes take place to turn the child into an adult. While familiar physical signposts mark normal puberty, there is much variation in when these signposts appear. Anticipating these changes can help ward off worry in adolescents who might perceive that their growth and maturation are proceeding differently from that of their peers—and from the “ideal” bodies pictured in magazines, motion pictures, and television programs. Normal puberty usually extends over a three-year period that begins between the ages of 10 and 11 for girls and 11 and 12 for boys. However, puberty’s onset can occur anytime between the ages of 8 and 13 for girls and 9 and 15 for boys and still be considered perfectly normal. The sequence of events during puberty may not be precisely the same for all children, but they are much less variable than is their timing.
Scientists believe that hereditary factors are the primary determinant of when puberty begins and how it progresses. Consequently, a daughter is likely to follow her mother’s pattern and a son the father’s pattern. However, research suggests that other factors may also be involved in the timing of pubertal events.
Taking a historical look at puberty, British pediatrician James Tanner, a renowned expert on pubertal development, noted in the 1960s that the average age of menarche (the beginning of menstruation) had been decreasing since the mid-1800s, as nutrition and sanitation improved, and many infectious diseases were brought under control. According to Tanner’s findings, Western European girls’ average age at menarche was about 17.3 years in 1830 and 12.9 years in 1969. Since 1969, the average age of menarche has decreased to 12.5 years, though researchers believe it is unlikely to drop much further, if at all.
In girls, the appearance of a breast “bud” is often the first indication that puberty is beginning. In boys, the growth of the testicles usually happens first, but for reasons of privacy, this may be observable only to the boy himself. For many parents, a conspicuous increase in height is the first outward indication of puberty’s onset in their son. Growth, in fact, is a predominant characteristic of puberty.
Puberty Brings Many Physical Changes
Boys and girls typically undergo a significant growth spurt about halfway through puberty, when they attain both greater height and weight. By the end of this accelerated growth period, which lasts about two years, boys typically have zoomed up 8 inches (about 20 centimeters). Girls have lengthened by 3 to 4 inches (about 8 to 10 centimeters). Both sexes typically gain one-half to 1 inch (about 1.25 to 2.5 centimeters) more before reaching their full adult height after puberty.
Feet grow first, followed by the legs. This phenomenon is what makes pubescent children, especially boys, appear so slim. Growth then takes place in the shoulders and arms, and then the chest and trunk, though the pattern varies somewhat between the sexes. For example, hipbones widen significantly only in girls. And in boys, the larynx (voice box) elongates, initially making their voices crack unpredictably—a potentially annoying and embarrassing occurrence for them. In both sexes, but particularly in boys, the jawbone becomes more pronounced and is the main feature that distinguishes the childish face from that of an adult.
Boys also begin to grow facial hair. A mustache of fine hair usually appears between the ages of 14 and 16, gradually becoming thicker and coarser. Hereditary factors mostly determine the pattern and texture of the beard.
To their dismay, about 40 percent of adolescent boys temporarily experience a slight breast enlargement. This condition is due to a normal rise in hormones and subsides on its own within a year or two. Meanwhile, though, these boys may endure much teasing. Parents can reassure their son that this is a normal, common condition—and not something that compromises his masculinity.
By the end of puberty, girls typically have gained an average of 25 pounds (about 11 kilograms), most of it in fatty tissue that arranges itself into the familiar female contours. Boys have put on about 40 pounds (about 18 kilograms) on average, mostly in muscle. While puberty molds boys and girls into male or female shapes, genetic makeup (traits passed from parents to offspring), diet and exercise, fine-tune the individual’s physique.
Early in puberty, both sexes develop thin pubic hairs that cover a small area over the genitals. As time goes on, this hair becomes coarser and darker, covering all the skin around the genitals and typically extending to the inner thighs. Adolescents sprout underarm hair that also becomes thicker and darker as puberty progresses. Sweat glands under the arms become active and cause a type of body odor not present in children.
The highlight of puberty in girls is the advent of menstruation. Girls usually get their first menstrual period about two years after their breasts have begun to develop. In the United States, the average age at which girls start to menstruate is 12 and 1/2 years. Although menstruation suggests that a girl is sexually mature, ovulation (the release of an ovum or egg from an ovary) may not occur for several months after menarche. And full reproductive capability may not develop for a year or more. Periods may also take several months to fall into a regular cycle of 24 to 32 days.
Experts on adolescent health advise preparing girls for menarche not to be alarmed by the appearance of blood and the cramps that may accompany it. Although many schools now provide sex education classes, children may want or need information before or in addition to these formal sessions. Parents who share their knowledge about menstruation and convey a positive attitude about it can help their daughter feel a sense of pride, rather than embarrassment, confusion, or anxiety about this developmental rite of passage.
Boys also become sexually mature during puberty. The penis doubles in size, first lengthening and then broadening. The scrotum darkens and its size may increase sevenfold. Although boys have erections throughout their lives, they become more frequent and unpredictable during puberty. About a year after the penis and scrotum begin to change, boys are able to ejaculate semen, the sperm-containing fluid produced by the testicles.
Like girls, boys may need support in coping with these changes. Those who do not understand how their bodies function may feel startled, guilty, and worried about episodes of ejaculation. Parents who have displayed acceptance of this normal process and provided accurate information about it can add to their son’s comfort with it.
Early and late Adulthood
Children—particularly girls—who mature faster than do most of their peers may feel their difference intensely. At this stage in their lives, adolescents wish to not differ too conspicuously from their friends and classmates. Those who do may suffer teasing and even rejection. On the other hand, some early maturers—especially boys—may be admired for their leg-up on adulthood. Either way, these children may need reassurance that they are normal and that their peers will eventually catch up.
There is some evidence that girls who mature earlier than is average may have difficulty coming to terms with their changing bodies. For example, a study reported in 1992 by the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester showed that sixth-grade girls who had reached menarche were less satisfied with their bodies, more likely to think of themselves as fat, and more prone to diet than were their peers who had not yet begun to menstruate. A 1988 survey by researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor found that early-maturing girls tended to suffer from eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa (fasting) or bulimia (induced vomiting).
Girls who mature early may also be pressured to date and engage in sexual activity before they are mentally or emotionally ready for it. Parents can intervene by helping their daughter sort out her feelings about such attention and by discussing ways in which she might deflect unwanted overtures.
Children—especially males—who are late bloomers face similar feelings of not fitting in. They also need reassurance that they will eventually develop as their peers have. Girls whose breasts have not begun to bud by age 13, and boys whose testicles have not begun to grow by age 13 and 1/2 years, are said to have delayed puberty. In most cases, delayed puberty is nothing to worry about. The process usually begins eventually and progresses normally. But the rare underlying medical problem can be ruled out only by a physician.
As with early puberty, genes are the primary forces at work in delayed puberty. Although evidence is inconsistent and controversial, some studies have cited high levels of athletic activity as a possible cause of late menarche in girls. In some instances of delayed puberty in boys, a physician may recommend hormone injections. These may stimulate puberty but may also have some side effects that should be discussed with the physician.
How To Establish An Adult Identity
Psychologists generally agree that most adolescents have mixed feelings as they move through puberty. Some adolescents have difficulty developing self-confidence during puberty because they think they must behave as an adult would, yet they do not fully know how to do this, and sometimes still feel childish. In trying to establish themselves as acceptably mature individuals, adolescents often become preoccupied with their outward appearance and seem to constantly compare themselves with others. During this time, privacy becomes important to them—and should be respected.
This turning inward, say many psychologists, may be a necessary step for adolescents to take in their quest to establish a distinct personal identity from their parents and to function independently in the world. Toward this end, they may daydream and set goals for themselves that might seem impractical to their parents.
Young teens can also develop socially by increasing and testing their social relationships, primarily with acquaintances and friends their own age, and they tend to look to their peers rather than to their parents for approval. Young adolescents may also challenge their parents’ values—sometimes rudely and painfully—in trying to establish their own. And they occasionally turn rebellious in an attempt to take the reins from their parents, teachers, and other authority figures.
Role Of Parents in Passage Through Puberty
As trying as these behaviors can be to parents, most psychologists say that understanding and tolerance rather than criticism and rigidity are the keys to preventing teen-agers from straying too far in the wrong direction. Some studies show that children who enter puberty with high self-esteem—helped in large part by the praise and support their parents have given them—make the passage through puberty more safely and smoothly than do children who are filled with self-doubt. For example, researchers reporting at a joint meeting of the Society for Adolescent Medicine (SAM) and the Society for Research in Adolescence (SRA) in 1992 found that students in grades 7 through 12 who had a sense of connectedness with at least one caring adult had fewer incidents of depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and delinquency.
During the transition to adulthood, adolescents need guidance and limits as well as support and reassurance. For example, various studies reported at the SAM/SRA meeting found that adolescents whose parents supervised and laid down rules about dating and other activities were less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as drinking and sexual intercourse.
Some common-sense advice on parental discipline and intervention has withstood changing times and values. Experts suggest that parents explain and enforce rules on those behaviors that matter most—such as drinking and driving—and be flexible about less crucial things—such as dress and language.
Experts also note that the adage about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar applies to interactions with adolescents. Yelling tends to inspire a return in kind rather than a resolution of disputes. Adolescents respond better to rewards than to punishments, and many studies have shown that angry, rebellious teens typically have received much parental discipline and punishment but little praise.
What Are Risky Behaviors
While moodiness and passing emotional slumps are common among adolescents, prolonged depression may require professional help. A son or daughter who is uninterested in eating, has difficulty sleeping, withdraws from family or friends, or talks of suicide, needs attention. Drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, and deteriorating grades and school attendance are also warnings that a child needs help. A 1990 survey of high school students by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga., showed that suicidal thoughts were not rare. Among those responding to the survey, 27 percent said they had thought about attempting suicide during the preceding 12 months. Sixteen percent had actually constructed a suicide plan, and half of them had actually attempted to carry out their plan.
While parents generally should allow greater independence and responsibility in their adolescents, they also need to keep tabs on where their children are and what they’re up to. Although parents of adolescents may have experimented with sex and drugs in their younger days, teen-agers engaging in such behavior today can suffer harsher penalties. AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases are real threats to sexually active teens, and experimenting with drugs has become even riskier because of crack availability, a highly addictive form of cocaine.
But parents who discuss responsible ways to handle sexual impulses may help their adolescents keep themselves in check. And calmly discussing the hazards of drug use can help them understand its potential danger. Many books are available to parents who need help discussing these subjects with their children.
How Hormones Regulate Puberty
While many of puberty’s physical and emotional changes are conspicuous, the underlying cause is unseen. Hormones (chemical messengers released into the bloodstream by various glands) affect specific body tissues’ activities, orchestrating many of the physical changes and some of the behavioral changes that occur during puberty. Hormones that specifically control puberty are in place and operating before birth, but subside a year or so after birth.
Although inconclusive, some studies suggest that a hormone called melatonin, which is produced by the pineal gland in the brain, may be involved in suppressing certain hormones from age 1 until age 7 or 8. At this point, levels of melatonin begin to decrease, and the hormones that kick off puberty swing into action.
Which Hormones Spur Sexual Maturation
First, the hypothalamus, a gland in the middle of the brain, releases in regular bursts a chemical called gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). This hormone tells the pituitary gland, a pea-sized organ located at the center of the brain’s base near the hypothalamus, to step up its production of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and to luteinizing hormone (LH). Another hormone from the hypothalamus stimulates the pituitary to increase its production of growth hormone. The increase in growth hormone, as its name implies, causes the adolescent growth spurt. The hormones FSH and LH mainly spur sexual maturation.
In females, FSH and LH act on the ovaries. FSH causes an egg in an ovary to ripen, and LH prompts the release of the ripened egg. These hormonal activities initiate menstruation in girls and recur monthly in menstruating women. FSH also stimulates the ovaries to produce hormones called estrogens, while LH instructs them to secrete progesterone. Estrogens are primarily responsible for the development of the ovaries, uterus, vagina, and breasts and contribute to bone growth and the distribution of fat in the hips and breasts. Progesterone helps regulate ovulation and the menstrual cycle. It also thickens the uterine lining, a condition necessary for pregnancy.
In males, FSH and LH prompt the testicles to grow and produce androgens, the male sex hormones. Testosterone, the main androgen, spurs penis development and the growth of facial and body hair. It also encourages bone and muscle growth.
Androgens and Estrogens
The adrenal glands, located just above the kidneys, also produce androgens and estrogens, which are types of hormones called steroids. Both are present in males and females. Although research has shown that androgens likely play a role in a girl’s growth, scientists do not yet know all the ways in which opposite-sex hormones may function. However, they do know that an increase in testosterone during puberty promotes the growth of underarm and pubic hair and is responsible for the bane of many male and female adolescents-acne.
Hormones and the glands that produce them control each other by using a feedback system similar to, although much more complex than, that of a furnace and thermostat. Like a thermostat that reacts to temperature levels in a house, the body continually monitors the level of hormones circulating in the bloodstream. When the amount of hormones falls below a certain level, the body signals the glands to produce more, just as a thermostat alerts a furnace to produce more heat when the temperature falls below a preset level. And just as a thermostat reacts to too much warmth by telling the furnace to turn off, the body instructs the glands to temporarily reduce hormone production after hormones have reached the required level.
Hormones and Behavior
This complex interplay of hormones may affect more than physical development. Although human studies of hormones and behavior are difficult to conduct and often create controversy, some have shown correlations between increased or decreased hormone levels and certain emotions and behaviors.
For example, testosterone has been linked to aggressiveness and sexual desire in both males and females. Various studies have indicated that many women experience such behavioral changes as irritability, anxiety, mood swings, tension, depression, and a change in sex drive during the 7 to 10 days preceding their menstrual period. These changes are believed to be related to fluctuating hormone levels.
Although altered hormone levels may prompt some of the emotional and behavioral changes apparent in many adolescents, hereditary, psychological, and societal factors contribute to how these impulses play themselves out. The timing of dating, for example, is dictated more by cultural norms than by a biological clock.
Peer pressure and the desire to attain a greater height and bigger muscles may tempt some teenagers, especially boys, to artificially alter their hormone levels. Since 1988, various surveys have revealed that from 5 to 12 percent of male high school seniors have tried hormones called anabolic steroids. Physicians warn that using steroids is dangerous and can produce some results that are the opposite of what its users hope for. For example, anabolic steroids can prematurely end bone growth, preventing a boy from reaching his full height. Other possible side effects can include infertility, acne, an elevated risk for liver damage and cardiovascular disease, baldness, and extremely aggressive behavior.
When parents of teen-agers hear of other adolescents using steroids or engaging in risky—or simply different—behavior, they may wonder if their own child is headed for danger. But understanding puberty’s psychological as well as physical effects can help parents put their teenager’s behavior in perspective.
Despite the concerns or frustrations that parents may experience with their adolescent child, they should be reassured by the fact that almost all children make it through puberty with no permanent damage. While puberty is a challenging time, it is also an exciting one. It is a time during which parents can observe the fruits of their labor as they watch their children unfold into mature people with distinct personalities who are ready to step into the world—and into the rest of their lives.