Biological Changes Associated with Puberty

As a result of the activation of the hormones controlling pubertal development, early adolescents undergo a growth spurt, develop primary and secondary sex characteristics, become fertile, and experience increased sexual drive. There is also some evidence that the hormonal changes are linked to behaviors such as aggression, sexuality, and mood swings. These relations are quite weak, however, and are often overridden by social experiences.

In general, pubertal changes begin twelve to eighteen months earlier for girls than for boys. As a result, anyone working with youth in grade six will immediately notice a major difference in the physical maturity between girls and boys. Many girls at this age look and act like fully mature young women, while most of the males still look and act like boys. The impact of these differences on the development of young men and women will vary by cultural group depending on cultural beliefs and norms, such as appropriate roles for physically mature individuals, appropriate heterosexual activities, and ideals related to female and male beauty.

There are also major individual differences in pu-bertal development within each sex. Some children begin their pubertal changes earlier than others. The impact of these differences depends on the cultural beliefs and norms that relate to the meaning of early maturation for both girls and boys. For example, among white populations, early maturation tends to be advantageous for boys, particularly with respect to their participation in sports activities and their social standing in school. By contrast, early maturation can be problematic for white girls, because the kinds of physical changes girls experience with puberty (such as weight gain) are not highly valued among many white American groups who value the slim, androgynous female body characteristic of white fashion models. In a 1987 study, Roberta Simmons and Dale Blyth found that early maturing white females had lower self-esteem and more difficulty adjusting to school transitions, particularly the transition from elementary to junior high school, than later maturing white females, white males, and both early and later maturing African-American females. Similarly, in a 1990 study in Sweden, Hakan Stattin and David Magnusson found that early maturing girls obtained less education and married earlier than their later maturing peers, because they were more likely to join older peer groups and date older males. In turn, these girls were more likely to drop out of school and get married, perhaps because school achievement was not valued by their peer social network while early entry into the job market and early marriage was. Early maturation does not have these kinds of effects in all cultural groups. For example, African-American females in the United States do not evidence these patterns.

Directly linked to the biological changes associated with puberty are the changes in both body architecture and emotions related to sexuality. Puberty is all about the emergence of sexuality. The physical changes of puberty both increase the individual's own interest in sex and turn the individual into a sexual object in other people's eyes. Both of these changes can have a profound impact on development. Sexual behavior increases dramatically during early to middle adolescence. With these increases go increases in pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Both the frequency of these behaviors and the long-term consequences of these behaviors differ across cultural groups.

Changes in Cognition

Adolescence is accompanied by an increasing ability to think abstractly, consider the hypothetical as well as the real, engage in more sophisticated and elaborate information processing strategies, consider multiple dimensions of a problem at once, and reflect on one's self and on complicated problems. There is also a steady increase in learning strategies, in knowledge of a variety of different topics and subject areas, in the ability to apply knowledge to new learning situations, and in the awareness of one's strengths and weaknesses as a learner. With practice these new cognitive skills can help adolescents become more efficient, sophisticated learners, ready to cope with relatively advanced topics in many different subject areas.

These kinds of cognitive changes also affect individuals' self-concepts, thoughts about their future, and understanding of others. Many theorists have suggested that the adolescent years are a time of change in children's self-concepts, as they consider what possibilities are available to them and try to come to a deeper understanding of themselves in the social and cultural contexts in which they live. In a culture that stresses personal choice in life planning, these concerns and interests also set the stage for personal and social identity formation focused on life planning issues such as those linked to educational, occupational, recreational, and marital choices. Finally, as adolescents become more interested in understanding the psychological characteristics of others, friendships become based more on perceived similarities in these characteristics.

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