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Development in Early Adolescence: Puberty and Low Self Esteem

written by: Jacqueline Chinappi • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 8/2/2012

During this time in their life, students are experiencing many many dramatic interactions between biological, societal and psychological systems. Many children may struggle with self esteem during this time as their body makes a lot of changes. Here is some advice for teachers to help students.

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    Psychological & Physiological Changes

    During early adolescence dramatic physical changes take place which includes growth spurts, reproductive system development, appearance of secondary sex characteristics, increase in muscle strength and redistribution of body weight. At this point in time the brain also continues development. Changes in the brain account for an increase in emotion, modification of memory and development of associations throughout areas of the brain which control emotion, impulse control and judgment. (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 303.)

    Social pressures and “society norms" may play a big role in pressuring how children feel about their body image especially during this stage in life. Girls who may develop later may feel “babyish" in comparison to girls their age who develop earlier. On the other hand girls who develop earlier than others their age may feel out of place in comparison. “Girls are more dissatisfied than boys with their physical appearance and their overall body image." (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 304.)

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    Self Esteem Issues in Teenage Girls

    Between the ages of thirteen and fifteen girls start to feel more self-conscious about their body image. The societal norm is that girls should be “thin" and for those who are not as thin as others self-esteem may take its toll. Research has been done throughout the United States , Korea and Australia which noted that “body dissatisfaction is associated with lower levels of self-esteem and increased likelihood of depression among early adolescent girls." (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 303.)

    Developing early can take a huge toll on emotions and psychological changes. While for a girl developing early on may mean dating earlier and experiencing events that she wouldn’t “normally" experience for some time. Girls who develop early may not psychologically be ready for all of this though including dating, boys, makeup, etc. This may mean that these girls grow up too fast and may lose out on part of their childhood.

    The three influences that show to impact body unhappiness among girls this age are “social pressures to be thin; an internalized thin ideal body type; and higher than average body mass." (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 305.) A mixture of these aspects can lead girls into eating disorders, low self-esteem and ultimately an unhealthy psychological attitude about themselves.

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    Puberty in Boys

    Boys usually accept the physical changes more positively as they welcome an increase in height and muscles. The changes during puberty can be quite uncomfortable though for a boy. With the onset of puberty comes the deepening of the voice, different growth spurts and a general feeling of awkwardness as these changes do not come all at once. For instance a boy can have his growth spurt all of a sudden and yet still feel lanky and awkward because he has not yet “filled out" with muscle. This period of awkwardness can cause some self-esteem issues for boys.

    Another area of physical development which impacts boys socially and psychologically is the maturation of the secondary sex characteristics. These characteristics include the development of facial and body hair. Facial hair is almost like a passage rite for boys becoming men. “The ritual of shaving not only provides some affirmation of the boy’s masculinity, but it also allows him an acceptable outlet for narcissism." (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 307.)

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    “Early and late maturing have psychological and social consequences for both boys and girls." (Newman & Newman, 2006, p. 308.) In our next article we will take a look at Jean Piaget's Formal Operational Thought during Early Adolescence.

The Psychology of Adolescent Development

Learn more about how children are developing cognitively during puberty. This is a time in life where a lot is happening developmentally.
  1. Development in Early Adolescence: Puberty and Low Self Esteem
  2. Psychology and Development of Early Adolescence: Part Two
  3. Adolescent Development: Tips for Teachers on Dealing with Early or Late Maturation