Physical & Mental Changes During The Period Of Adolescence

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Adolescence lasts from about 12 – 18 years of age. The primary physical change during adolescence is the start of puberty. This is a brain-neuroendocrine process that provides stimulation for rapid physical changes that take place. This is when a child takes on adult physical characteristic, such as voice changes, height/weight growth for males and breast development and menstruation begins for females. Females typically enter puberty two years prior to males. The process is hormonal driven and include actions from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. During this time, adolescents are preoccupied with their body image, as their bodies are rapidly changing. Females are typically more dissatisfied with their bodies than males, however, body image perception becomes more positive for both genders as they end the adolescent period.

Brain development during this time includes significant structural changes. The corpus callosum thickens, improving their ability to process information. The prefrontal lobes continue to develop, increasing reasoning, decision making and self-control. The limbic system, specifically the amygdala is completely developed by this stage.

This stage also marks a time of sexual exploration, forming a sense of sexual identity, managing sexual feelings, and developing intimate relationships. Most adolescents are not emotionally prepared for sexual experiences and can lead to high risk sexual factors. Contraceptive use is not prevalent in this age group, even though it can lessen or eliminate the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. Teen pregnancy, while reduced from years past, is still too high. Sex education continues to be a topic of discussion as to what is most appropriate for the schools – abstinence only or education that emphasizes contraceptive knowledge.

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Health during this stage of development is of concern as bad health habits learned here, can lead to death in early adult life. Obesity due to poor nutrition and lack of exercise remains a consistent theme. Sleep is also important for this age group as most reported getting less than 8 hours of sleep per night. Substance use is also seen in this age group. Another health concern is eating disorders including both anorexia and bulimia, these disorders can take over a person’s life due to distorted body images. Piaget’s final stage of cognitive development occurs during this stage – the formal operational stage. Adolescents are not bound by concrete thoughts or experiences during this stage. They can think abstractly, idealistically, and logically.

Executive function is one of the most important cognitive changes that occurs in this stage. This involves an adolescent ability to have goal directed behavior and the ability to exercise self-control. The transition between elementary school to junior high school during this stage can be very stressful for adolescents. It occurs during a period of time when many other physical changes (puberty) are occurring at the same time. This can create stress and worrying for the child.

Erickson’s fifth developmental stage that corresponds to this period in life is Identity vs identity confusion. This stage is aided by a psychosocial moratorium, which is the gap between adolescence and adulthood. This period a person is relatively free of responsibility to determine what their true identity is. This is the path that one takes toward adult maturity. Crisis during this stage is a period in which a person is identifying alternatives. Commitment is a personal investment in an identity. It is believed that while identity is explored during this stage, finalization does not occur until early adulthood, with life review.

Parents take on a managerial role during this stage; monitoring the choices that are made regarding friends, activities, and their academic efforts. Higher rates of parental monitoring leads to lower rates of alcohol and drug use. The adolescents need for autonomy can be hard for a parent to accept. The parents feel like the child is “slipping away” from them. There is also gender differences as far as it relates to how much autonomy is granted, with males receiving more autonomy than females. Conflict during this escalates during the early adolescent stage, but then lessens towards the end of the stage.

Friendships during this stage are often fewer, but more intimate than in younger years and take on an important role of meeting social needs. Positive friendships are associated with positive outcomes, including lower rates of substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, bullying and victimization. Peer pressure at this stage in life is high, with more conformance to peer pressure if they are uncertain about their social identity. Cliques and crowds emerge and provide a more important role during this stage of development. Dating and romantic relationships begin to evolve. Juvenile delinquency is a problem that emerges, with illegal behaviors being noted. This can be due to several factors including lower socioeconomic status, sibling relationships, peer relationships, and parental monitoring. Depression and suicide also increase during this stage of life.

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