From Encyclopedia of Sex and Sexuality
For many young men and women in our society, adolescence is a turbulent period, not only because of bodily changes but also because of the need to move toward breaking dependence on their parents. These years are usually from about the age of eleven, or the onset of puberty, until about the age of sixteen or seventeen. Although adolescents may be physically capable of procreation, they suffer from the inconsistencies that exist between nature and the realities of the social world. Despite adolescents’ physical and emotional development during these years, the long period of socialization and education required in modern societies to adequately perform adult roles has extended the concept of childhood to later years; boys and girls many years past the age of puberty are still regarded as “children” without, for example, the competence to vote or buy a glass of beer.
This contradiction between the adolescent’s self-awareness as a viable sexual being supported by peer group values, and society’s rules and expectations, is the source of much frustration and anger between parents and adolescents. Although it is not feasible for an adolescent to support a family, strong and frequent bodily urges experienced during this period impel most young men and women to violate parental, religious, and social rules on sexual conduct. Adolescents are often forced to choose between what their parents tell them (usually abstinence) and what their bodies, friends, movies, rock and rap groups, and others are saying (“listen to your body”). Adolescent boys usually receive support from other boys (through jokes, bull sessions, and reading and watching pornography together) about the legitimacy of their sexual feelings and how to act on them through intercourse or masturbation. Adolescent girls, however, are given many contradictory messages, even during childhood. For example, little girls see other little girls flirting with little boys in television commercials and shows; they see and hear an emphasis on sexy hair, makeup, and clothes—some of it geared to the very young preadolescent—all with the contradictory message: “Be sexy, but don’t have sex.” Despite the erotic stimulation directed at adolescents of both sexes, our society’s gender-based norms are much more controlling of girls. Adolescents may also be confused by changes in touching after a certain age. While among some groups in our society, fathers may continue to greet their sons by hugging them, many fathers begin shaking their adolescent sons’ hands rather than hugging and kissing them as they did in earlier years. This is often justified by the belief that “real men don’t hug.” Similarly, in many families the affection once expressed by a father for his daughter through touching, hugging, and kissing may suddenly turn into a more distant and formal relationship as she begins to mature. Generally, a father does not shake his daughter’s hand; rather, he may, with some awkwardness, avoid physical closeness without his daughter understanding why. That this growing distance may support the incest taboo is very likely, but in many families it seems to apply more to daughters than sons and is a source of confusion for many adolescents.
The growing sexual feelings of the adolescent girl and her bodily urges, as well as menstrual periods, all tell her that she is becoming a woman and can enjoy her body. However, in Western culture, parents and society want adolescent girls to contain their sexuality until marriage or, at least, until adulthood. On the other hand, this is sharply contradicted by the popular media, in particular in a growing number of television shows that describe a world very different from parents’ teachings. Furthermore, rental videos provide contemporary adolescents with a private viewing of the most vivid depictions of every aspect of sexuality and sensual pleasure, often involving sexuality among teenagers. Attempts to prevent or discourage intercourse between teenagers in recent years have not proven successful, and in many communities teenagers are denied effective sex education. For many, this has led to personally unfortunate situations and a serious social problem: according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, one million teenage American girls become pregnant each year, a figure that has remained constant for the last seven years. In 1984 alone there were 470,000 babies born to young women between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, while an additional ten thousand babies were born to girls aged fourteen or younger.
It appears that our society does not do enough to prepare a young person psychologically for responsible adulthood. Older rules emphasizing “No Sex!” until adulthood appear to be inconsistent with modern values, and there is little preparation or training of the young for responsible nonmarital sex or parenting for high school students. We seem to be inept as a society in preventing children from having children and inept at teaching them responsible parenthood when they do. Adolescence is a learning stage between childhood and adult independence, but there is a scarcity of programming and education to facilitate this growth. At present, adolescence seems to be defined as a holding pattern, one in which teenagers are supposed to avoid adult behavior while learning skills needed to enter career training or college. There seem to be few opportunities during this crucial period for a person to learn the human relations skills of adulthood. To some it appears that we want to shelter our children during adolescence and then let them out on their own after age eighteen without adequate preparation. The consequences of this poor social planning are undoubtedly an important element in perpetuating such social problems as poverty and dysfunctional families.
 See Also
 Biological Aspects
Adolescence is the stage of human physical and psychosomatic development that generally takes place during the second decade of life. Throughout adolescence, chemical substances called hormones increase in level and activity, causing males and females to experience a wide variety of physical and emotional changes. Hormones can also influence how males and females think and feel about themselves, their friends, and their family members.
Although these changes of adolescence help each boy and girl mature, the particular order and extent of change vary from one person to another, even within the same family and gender. Two adolescents of the same age and gender may be in completely different stages of development. One may be more or less physically mature than another, so it is comforting to keep in mind that people follow their own biological clocks of development, yet still reach the same basic milestones on the way to adulthood.
Adolescents are often curious and concerned about the biological changes they experience. Many of the feelings, physical developments, and behavior patterns that accompany adolescence begin with physical changes that happen internally, making it physically possible for young people to create a child. This stage of development is referred to as puberty.
Adolescent males and females generally develop the physical capacity to create children long before they are completely ready to accept the adult responsibility of parenting children, just as infants can physically walk before they are sufficiently mature to judge the safety of certain situations. Since puberty can begin late in the first decade of life (but generally starts in the second decade), it is clear that males and females become capable of reproduction early in the developmental process. This section helps clarify the physical changes a person can expect during puberty, and explains the biological and chemical reasons for these changes.
 Physical Changes in Puberty
The first physical signs of puberty include increased height and weight, growth of underarm and pubic hair, increased perspiration, increased hair on arms and legs, and elevated levels of oil in the skin (one of the causes of acne). In females, breasts become larger and more pronounced, nipples stand out more clearly, and the genitals get a little darker and fleshier. In males, the pitch of the voice lowers, facial hair might appear, shoulders get broader, the muscles in the arms, legs, and torso become more defined, and the penis and testicles grow and become a little darker.
 How Puberty Progresses for Males and Females
The changes that make puberty possible actually begin before birth. Hormones begin to interact in the fetus. These hormones stimulate fetal sexual development and result in the forming of primary sexual characteristics. In males the primary sex characteristics are the penis, scrotum, and testicles. In females they are the vagina, uterus, and ovaries. Once these characteristics are developed, the central nervous system of the fetus, infant, and child keeps these hormones at a very low level of activity for approximately the first decade of life.
At some point during the second decade of a person’s life, the brain begins to stimulate enough production of these hormones to start the changes of puberty. It is not known exactly what causes the brain to produce these hormones.
The human body has many different kinds of hormones, which are chemicals produced by endocrine glands. Endocrine glands are clusters of cells that are physically attached to certain blood vessels. This connection to the blood vessels makes it easy for endocrine glands to release the hormones through the blood vessels and into the blood stream, so the blood can carry the hormones throughout the body.
During this particular period of growth, a person is getting taller at a faster rate than he or she has experienced since the age of two. Females tend to have their growth spurts earlier than males, and males tend to keep growing for a longer period of time than females.
Since the entire body has to grow, growth may occur in one part of the skeleton first, and in another part later. Feet and hands might grow bigger, then arms and legs, and then the rest of the torso and even the head and neck. Final height for boys is generally reached by the later teens or early twenties. Final height for girls is generally reached during the middle of adolescence, although variations are normal.
While the skeleton is growing taller and heavier, the shape of the body continues to change. Girls’ pelvic bones get wider, so they can eventually accommodate a fetus during a pregnancy. This growth gives girls greater lower body width and strength. Males’ shoulders start to get wider, giving them more upper body strength.
Dramatic changes occur in the skeletal structure of the face. Compare the round face of a child with the longer, more defined lower jaw, hairline, and cheekbones of an adult. It becomes easy to see how many changes females and males must undergo before they achieve their final facial structure. In addition to dramatic skeletal changes, females and males increase their muscle mass and weight growth, all as a result of the release of hormones.
At or near the second decade of life, the part of the brain identified as the hypothalamus matures enough to produce hormones called “releasing factors.” These releasing factors trigger another part of the brain, called the pituitary gland, to begin releasing higher levels of two hormones: follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). FSH and LH make ova (eggs) develop in the female ovaries and make sperm develop in the male testes.
Stimulated by the FSH and LH, the ovaries and testes begin to release high levels of sex hormones. The most important female sex hormones are estrogen and progesterone. The most important male sex hormone is called testosterone. Ovaries do produce low levels of testosterone, and testes do produce low levels of estrogen and progesterone.
While these sex hormones help the ovaries and testes continue to mature throughout adolescence, they are also responsible for the more visible changes described above, called “secondary sex characteristics.” Estrogen and progesterone stimulate the growth of breasts in girls. Testosterone stimulates the growth of beards in boys, and pubic and underarm hair in boys and girls. Testosterone also stimulates oil glands to be more productive in males and females. In males testosterone stimulates the larynx to grow, causing the voice to change and become deeper.
 Physical Sexual Maturity in Males
Male sexual maturity takes place in a series of stages. First, the testicles and then the penis become larger. As spermarche, or the capacity for sperm emission, begins to take place, erection and ejaculation can happen in response to sexual excitement. Spontaneous nocturnal ejaculation of semen can happen during sleep. Some amount of sperm will be present in the fluid that is ejaculated. Frequent, spontaneous erections and nocturnal emissions, normal during this stage of development, will diminish over time.
 Physical Sexual Maturity in Females
As noted earlier, the first indication of puberty in females can be breast development. This is followed by growth and development of the external sex organs: the vagina, labia, and clitoris. Inside, the uterus and ovaries grow.
At some point during this process, menarche, or the first episode of menstruation, takes place. However, it may take another one to one and a half years for regular menses and ovulation, the production of eggs, to occur. Menarche is stimulated by FSH, estrogen, and progesterone.
 Psycho-social Aspects of Adolescence
Because it is the crucial phase of human development immediately preceding adulthood, adolescence and the turbulence that often marks it have been studied intensively by psychologists and other social scientists. Although not all adolescents experience the “storm and stress” stereotypical of the period, psychologists have suggested that such difficulties are the result of stress placed on the individual adolescent by five development tasks required during this phase of life:
- The physical and physiological changes of puberty.
- Separation from parents or caretakers.
- The development of intimate friendships and a social network.
- The development of vocational and educational goals.
- Initial clarification of sexual orientation.
These developmental milestones can be accomplished by some individuals with relatively few problems but others find these tasks overwhelming or even impossible. In addition to all of these developmental tasks, the adolescent also must adopt a set of ethics and values to guide his or her future life.
Adolescence has been divided into early, middle, and late stages. Early adolescence ranges from approximately eleven and a half to thirteen years of age, middle adolescence from fourteen to seventeen, and late adolescence from eighteen to twenty-two.
Early adolescents are very focused on physical changes and adjustments to puberty. Their peer group becomes stronger at this time, and the development of friendships is very important. The cognitive style of the early adolescent is still childlike in that concrete thinking predominates. For example, if asked the meaning of the proverb “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” an early adolescent will give a literal interpretation such as, “if they throw stones, the walls will break.”
Middle adolescence is the stage at which separation from one’s parents and caretakers is the main developmental task. The beginning of vocational or educational planning as well as experimentation with sexual interaction occur during this stage. Abstract thinking begins to develop during this period but remnants of the concrete thinking of early adolescence remain.
Late adolescence is the stage at which further separation from parents is accomplished and increased intimacy in friendships is developed. Solidification of vocational and educational goals occurs during this stage. Abstract and complex thinking become the predominant cognitive styles for late adolescents.
Adjusting to the physical changes of puberty requires the adolescent to accept his or her rapidly changing appearance, and this is often problematic. As they grow, hormonal changes occur, causing menstruation in girls, nocturnal emissions in boys, and frequently acne and bodily odors.
While the peer group increases in importance as adolescence progresses, studies have shown that parents still remain the most influential force in adolescents’ lives. It is common, however, for adolescents to feel the need to “test the waters” and prove their independence from their parents. Adopting philosophical or political ideas that may be repugnant to parents is not uncommon, as demonstrated in choice of music, clothes, and even peers. The healthy adolescent is able to maintain a position, point of view, or opinion that is different from his or her parents without experiencing guilt or anxiety. At the same time, the healthy adolescent can hold a point of view that concurs with a parent’s without feeling coerced, dependent, or weak because of this agreement.The third developmental task of adolescence—developing intimate friendships and a social network—changes as adolescence progresses. During the early phase the peer group may be exclusionary or inclusionary—a type of clique quite common with girls and boys. Individuals may form friendships with specific others in the group or there can be a group relationship. During middle adolescence individual friendships may become more important, while the peer group continues to exert significant influence. Sexual interest may begin during this time, and the importance of a girlfriend or boyfriend, who is both a romantic figure as well as a best friend, often develops. During late adolescence friendships become more intimate and more intense, with an increased ability to openly share differences of opinion or thought. These differences are tolerated, permitting the relationship to endure.
The fourth developmental task of formulating vocational and educational goals is different during each of the three phases, and it is only during late adolescence, with the development of complex thinking, that adolescents are able to formulate new ideas and concepts. They begin to solidify career goals and develop paths to reach them.
Finally, clarification of sexual identification seems to be complete for most, though not all individuals by the end of puberty and adolescence, although it may occur later (there are some exceptions: see for example, lesbian sexual techniques.) During the early stage of adolescence, with the onset of puberty, intense crushes and infatuations frequently occur among members of the same sex. Sometimes these are mistaken by the adolescent to mean that he or she may be homosexual. The developmental task of solidifying sexual orientation is quite complex. A recent survey found that 25.9 percent of twelve-year-olds were “unsure” of their sexual orientation. During middle or late adolescence, when sexual activity becomes more common, sexual orientation becomes solidified. It is not only the individual’s sexual behavior that is of importance but his or her fantasy life as well. The individual who has not had sexual intercourse by the age of twenty-one but who masturbates exclusively to heterosexual or homosexual fantasies and images has a solidified sexual orientation, in spite of their virginity. By age eighteen only 5 percent of adolescents describe themselves as still unsure of their sexual orientation.
Adolescence, thought it may feel chaotic at times with all the bodily, social, cognitive, and family changes involved, can be an exciting period. It must be emphasized that there is tremendous variability among adolescents in the ease with which all these developmental tasks are accomplished and in the number of years it may take to complete them (see also eating disorders and sexual dysfunction).
 A Summary for Adolescent Females, Males, and Their Families
It is normal for adolescents to become concerned with their sexual development. Adolescents may be preoccupied with the variety of ways in which people within their own age group appear to develop. It is normal for the growing adolescent to experience anxiety about whether or not their own development is or is not “right” for their age and what the emotional changes gripping them mean. Adolescents require adults to listen to their questions, and respond with sensitivity, patience, and much emotional guidance. Adolescents deserve support so they can appreciate and celebrate their differences and similarities as they experience the miraculous process of sexual maturation.