Puberty is a rather significant topic for the contemporary psychologists. Many researchers are studying its various aspects such as physical, social, and emotional sides of this age. Puberty and adolescence are often considered to be the same process and the two terms are even sometimes used interchangeably as synonyms. Yet, this is incorrect. In reality, puberty is the process that reflects the anatomical changes of young people’s bodies that happen due to the release of growth hormones produced by pituitary gland. This way, puberty is a more physiological process. Puberty and adolescence are intertwined. They include a variety of metamorphoses that keep occurring in the bodies and minds of adolescents and teenagers. Such processes happen rapidly and develop quickly, as a result, the children transforming into adults tend to experience shock. This stage of development is always connected with mood shifts, psychological disorders, states of depression, anxiety, aggressive behavior, and the change of body image and self-perception for the young people.
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This way, it is no wonder that puberty is a period of time filled with conflicts between teenagers and their peers, adults, teachers, parents. This is why a variety of research works concerning puberty is directed at finding ways of successful communication and mutual understanding between children hitting puberty and adults. This paper is focused on such aspects of puberty as self-image and self-perception, psychological stress adolescents undergo when their bodies start to change, the differences between male and female puberty experience, the connection between puberty experiences and ethnicities, and eating behaviors in the period of puberty.
Importance of Studying Puberty
Even though the scholars have been aware of puberty changes and effects ever since ancient times, this subject has not had full focus from the side of experts until several decades ago. Puberty was not distinguished as a significant stage in developmental science (Lerner & Steinberg, 2004). The perception of this phenomenon is very different today. The research of puberty and its various aspects is a never ending process that attracts thousands of experts in the present days. Puberty has grown to become a major field within developmental science. Today, it leads to vibrant collaboration of scholars from all around the world. Puberty and adolescents became the focus of scientific attention as soon as it was realized that proper and harmonious development at this stage is a huge investment to the future of the society, as these stages and the environments of the young people hitting puberty are responsible for the level of education of the nation and its level of criminal activity.
Three Periods of Studying Puberty
Lerner and Steinberg (2004) divide the history of studying puberty and adolescence into three main periods. The first one starts in the beginning of 1900s and involves a number of theories viewing this stage of development as a transitional step between wildness and civilization of a human mind, or as a developmental frustration based on role confusion and identity crisis (Lerner & Steingberg, 2004). The second period is the present days, when a number of scholars found themselves naturally dragged into the exploration of adolescence and puberty because they were studying fields closely related to it such as childhood development or infancy. The third period identified by Lerner and Steinberg includes the future of the research in this field. The authors assume that the third period will be focused on exploring the unprecedented challenges to the adolescent development that occurred by the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. A good and famous example is the Internet and social media that significantly influence the interactions between teenagers, impact family relationships, change the processes of socialization, and self-image. This new influence is not characterized as good or bad, it is just very different, and it tends to alter the emotional and social development of young people a lot.
Physical Aspects of Puberty
It is a well known fact that puberty happens differently for male and female young people. Besides, puberty is individual for every person. The factors contributing to the timing and development of puberty can be of genetic or environmental nature. Basically, the onset of puberty depends on our physical characteristics (children start to go into puberty approximately at the same age as their parents did) and on our surroundings such as nutrition, physical exercise, and lifestyle. Interestingly enough, contemporary parents in the USA have been experiencing a growing concern in reference to their daughters’ quick maturity.
Quick Maturity in Girls
Hypothesis. Many American mothers report that their daughters’ puberty started much sooner than they expected. There is a popular idea that quicker maturity rates among teenage girls are caused by dairy products they consume as these were heard to contain hormones stimulating growth. Medical specialists of the United States are currently trying to manage this hypothesis and provide scientific and reasonable explanation.
Explanation. The connection between milk and growth hormones really exists. Basically, in order to increase the amount of milk produced by the cows at the farms many farmers started to practice the following strategy: the cows are treated with an artificial growth hormone called rBST, which is developed to stimulate the animals (Hormones in Milk: Are They Causing Early Puberty in Girls?, 2011). This way, the increase of milk production by cows becomes 10-15 per cent higher. At the same time, there is no scientific proof of any differences between milk produced by regular cows and the cows treated with protein hormone. As a result, dairy products hardly could be the cause of quicker puberty onset among teenage girls of the USA.
Other factors. One more interesting fact states that the average age at which girls typically reached puberty has been decreasing ever since 1800s (Hormones in Milk: Are They Causing Early Puberty in Girls?, 2011). At the same time, the rates of dairy consumption during this period became smaller, which is another proof that milk is not the cause of earlier puberty in females. According to medical workers and scientists, there are other factors that are more likely to be the impacts stimulating the onset of puberty today. One of them is better nutrition, since the country started to develop and become richer, the lives of its citizens also improved, people started to eat more and better, as a result puberty stopped being delayed over starvation. Besides, body mass index (BMI) is known to be in tight connection with puberty development. The contemporary American society (teenagers and adolescents included) experiences a strong tendency towards obesity, which is likely to speed up physical development in females. Finally, ethnicity is known to be one more factor able to influence the onset of puberty and its timing. African-American and Hispanic females are known to go into puberty sooner than girls of Caucasian background (Hormones in Milk: Are They Causing Early Puberty in Girls?, 2011). This way, girls with mixed roots may inherit the features of all of the ethnicities they have as their background. Since the number of citizens of mixed origin in the United States grows over decades, the tendency of the sooner onset of puberty is logical.
Puberty and Nutrition
Study of Adopted Girls
Nutrition is a very significant environmental factor influencing the development and timing of puberty. The research conducted in Italy targeted girls adopted from developing countries as many of such girls go into their puberty at a very young age several months after they arrive to their new homes (Virdis, Street, Zampolli, Radetti, Pezzini, Benelli, Ghizzoni & Volta, 2008). The research participants were nineteen adopted girls from developing countries (fifteen of them arrived from India), the girls were divided into two groups, the first group included children who were adopted before they turned four, and the second group consisted of girls who left their native lands and arrived to the new families after they turned five.
Precocious Puberty in Girls
All of the second group members started their puberty two or three months after adoption notwithstanding the young age. The researchers explained that this precocious maturity is caused by the improvement of the girls’ diets, as in their native countries they were chronically underfed and ate mainly low protein vegetarian food. They all arrived with height and weight deficiencies. After the diets changed, their bodies started to rapidly catch up and height and body mass, which triggered early puberty and resulted in the aggravation of psychological issues connected to adoption.
Emotional Side of Puberty
Earlier Puberty Impacts
Puberty is known to be a risky period when young people are especially exposed to stress and psychological disorders (Klump, 2013). According to the quantitative research of Ge, Kim, Brody, Conger and Simons (2003), both boys and girls that start to mature earlier tend to undergo more severe transitional stress. Girls who start going into puberty earlier are more likely to develop depressive syndrome (Ge at al., 2003). As for the boys, the results are varied; early maturing boys tend to enjoy social advantage and become leaders in the groups of peers, but this is rarely a positive impact. Such leadership creates pressure and stimulates aggression and pushes the boys to break social laws to keep their leading roles. When it comes to bad habits such as smoking and unhealthy eating, earlier maturity affected both of these behaviors. Both boys and girls who started to develop sooner tried smoking before any of their peers did (Simon, Wardle, Jarvis, Steggles & Cartwright, 2003). Overeating patterns occurred only in boys. Eating disorders were also found to be extremely common for the teenage individuals, especially the ones of higher social class whose self-image was perceived based on the opinions of the others (Zofiran, Kartini, Sabariah & Ajau, 2011).
Eating disorders in teenagers tend to be the outcome of social pressures created by the media promoting skinniness and by unmerciful peers, as a result typical for puberty growth of hips of women was viewed as overweight and mocked. The research by Sira and Ballard (2011) demonstrates that body dissatisfaction and its consequences such as eating problems, depressions and social isolation developed during puberty continued further as the affected individuals went to college. Teenagers growing up in urban areas tend to experience more physical and psychological issues related to puberty. This happens because economical status of city dwellers is often much higher than that of rural population. This way the latter tend to have simpler and less fatty and sugary diets. Besides, urban teenagers are highly affected by their social profiles; they are under a constant pressure caused by the need to fit into rather strict criteria concerning appearances and figures. Boys find themselves pressured to exercise and develop bigger muscles, this is why they may start abusing growth hormones and steroids, and girls are pressured to be skinny, this is why they tend to starve, secretly reject food, count calories or intentionally throw up their meals. This way, sexual maturity and desire to attract others forces teenagers to search for ways of becoming wanted and popular, which often leads them into depression, stress, and health issues.
In conclusion, puberty is a highly sensitive time for both boys and girls of all cultural, ethnic, and social backgrounds. Puberty is studied and monitored by thousands of professionals in various fields because both positive and negative impacts occurring in this period tend to shape the future adult life of every individual.
Ge, X., Kim, I. J., Brody, H., Conger, R. D. & Simons, R. L. (2003). It’s about Timing and Change: Pubertal Transition Effects on Symptoms of Major Depression among African American Youths. Developmental Psychology, 39(3), 430–439.
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