Physical and Sexual Development

Adolescence is the period of time between late childhood and adulthood. It is a time of important physical development as well as social, emotional, and psychological growth. The most obvious signs of adolescence emerge at around age eleven or twelve as puberty and sexual maturation begin. Other changes such as cognitive development and the emergence of a selfidentity are more difficult to see but are just as important.

Human adolescence officially begins with the onset of puberty. What is puberty exactly? It is the point at which a person becomes physically able to reproduce. A huge rush of hormones begins puberty and a twoyear period of rapid physical development ensues. Puberty usually begins in a girl around age eleven and around age thirteen in boys, though the age of onset can vary.

The physical changes associated with puberty fall into two different categories. The development of primary sex characteristics involves the rapid growth of the reproductive organs and external genitalia. The development of secondary sex characteristics includes the development of traits such as breasts and wider hips in girls and deep voices and facial hair in boys.

Factors That Influence the Timing of Puberty

As you probably noticed during your own adolescence, not all children enter puberty at the same age. While people think of puberty as something controlled purely by biology, research has found that both genetics and environmental factors play a role as well. For example, girls typically begin to menstruate around the same age that their mothers did, suggesting that heredity plays an important part. Environmental factors such as nutrition and overall health also determine when puberty begins. Girls who are well nourished typically begin menstruating at an earlier age, while those who are malnourished or suffer from health problems during childhood tend to reach menarche much later.

The Impact of Early and Late Maturation

Adolescents are generally very aware of the physical changes associated with puberty and frequently compare their own rate of development with that of their peer group. While most adolescents reach specific milestones at about the same time as most of their friends, some children develop earlier or later. Studies have found that boys who develop more quickly than their peers are found to be more popular and independent, as their muscular development prompts them to be proud. However, girls who develop earlier than their peers are more likely to experience negative psychological and health outcomes. Girls who develop earlier than their peers are more prone to teasing than a boy who is developing faster than other boys. Early maturing girls are more at risk for having poor body image, more likely to experience symptoms of depression and have higher rates of teen pregnancy than late maturing girls.

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