Puberty is one of the most important life transitions. There is no other period in the life cycle in which there is such significant, rapid, and simultaneous transformation in biology and social and psychological development. Change at puberty is both dramatic and universal, yet there are few researchers who study this important stage in the life course. Indeed, the study of biological and psychosocial changes at puberty is relatively recent. One of the most interesting aspects of puberty is that it marks a significant separation between the genders: physically, psychologically, and socially. Most of the posts in this blog focuses on the emergence of gender differences and provides an up-to-date summary of interdisciplinary research in the area, with contributions from an international team of leading experts in the field. Topics covered include biological aspects of puberty, body image, aggression, sexual abuse, opposite sex relationships, and psychopathology.
Following a relatively long period of juvenile growth and reproductive immaturity, adolescence commences with a series of rapid endocrinological changes and ends at the completion of body growth. During adolescence, males and females . . . show a spurt in growth, secondary sexual characteristics such as sexual dimorphism and body shape . . . and both sexes attain reproductive maturity. Concomitant with these physical and physiological changes it is clear that there are profound changes in social behavior.This description reflects what we know about puberty in humans, although it was written by Anne Pusey to describe puberty in chimpanzees. Puberty represents the most salient developmental milestone in early adolescence. Although it is commonly thought of as the emergence of secondary sexual characteristics, there are a multitude of other important biological, psychological, and social changes associated with puberty. In the biological sphere there are changes in sleep patterns, brain neurochemistry, and body habitues, in addition to hormonal changes, during puberty.
In the psychological domain, there are dramatic shifts in identity, body image, and relationships with parents. Socially, the peer group becomes predominant, social awareness and social anxiety increase. There are important school transitions – elementary to middle school and middle school to high school – which youth have to navigate. It is at this time that experimentation with drugs escalates, sexual promiscuity begins, and risk-taking behavior becomes a way of life for a small subgroup of adolescents. Puberty is also of interest because males and females enter and complete pubertal development at different ages. There are interactions between gender-specific developmental changes and puberty. For example, the emergence of important gender differences in peer relationships, sexual activity, drug use, body image, depression, and anxiety occur at puberty. Why there is this divergence in life course between the genders at this critical developmental period is increasingly becoming the subject of scholarly inquiry.
Finally, puberty should not be regarded as the cause of difficulties in young people; rather, it is a marker for a developmental phase that has important implications for the transition from childhood to adulthood. It is important to remember that most adolescents who traverse puberty do not suffer ill effects from this transition. For some, puberty may accentuate earlier childhood problems. For others, however, the transition does herald the beginning of a range of psychosocial problems, from substance abuse and emotional problems to disturbed body image and sexually acting out. We know a great deal about the patterns of these behaviors in relation to puberty; we know less about the explanations.