Adolescence: Physical Development


In Western cultures, the onset of adolescence is marked by puberty: a period of rapid maturation in which the person becomes capable of sexual reproduction. The brain’s hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland to increase its secretion of hormones, which in turn stimulates other glands and physical growth throughout the body. This speeds up the maturation of the primary sex characteristics (the sex organs involved in reproduction). Hormonal changes also produce secondary sex characteristics (non-reproductive physical features, such as female breasts, and male facial hair).

In girls, puberty is marked by menarche, the first menstrual flow, and most often occurs at age 12 or 13 in Western cultures. In boys, puberty is marked by the production of sperm and the first ejaculation, and often occurs at age 14. While puberty is a biological process, it can be affected by environmental factors, so that it differs across people, cultures, and lifestyles.

Psychological Consequences

Hormones that steer puberty can affect mood and behavior, and people’s psychological reactions to puberty can also vary. These are influenced by whether puberty occurs early or late. In general, early maturation tends to be a more positive experience for boys than it is for girls. While early maturing boys gain physical strength and size, which facilitate their success at adolescent life, early maturing girls are more likely to develop negative body image issues and experience psychological distress than girls who mature later.

However, it is not just when puberty happens that matters, but also whether an individual perceives maturation as occurring too early or too late that influences their psychological reactions.

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