Adolescence used to be automatically associated with trouble. Recently, however, researchers have found that adolescence is not always so difficult, even with all the changes that occur during this period.

Physical Changes

Pubescence refers to the two years before puberty. The adolescent growth spurt actually begins during pubescence, at about age eleven in girls and about age thirteen in boys. At this time, children get taller and heavier and develop secondary sex characteristics. Secondary sex characteristics are sex-specific physical characteristics that are not essential for reproduction. Girls develop breasts, widened pelvic bones, and wider hips. Boys develop facial hair, broader shoulders, and deeper voices.

After pubescence and at the beginning of adolescence, puberty occurs. Puberty is the point at which sexual organs mature. Sexual organs include the ovaries in girls and the penis and testes in boys.

Menarche, or the first menstrual period, marks the onset of puberty in girls. The average age of menarche for American girls is about twelve and a half. The beginning of nocturnal emissions, so-called wet dreams, marks the onset of puberty in boys. American boys typically begin to produce sperm by fourteen years of age. Girls reach full sexual maturation around age sixteen, and boys reach sexual maturity at around eighteen.

Varying Maturation Rates

Puberty occurs at different rates for different people. In girls, puberty usually happens between ages ten and fifteen and in boys between ages eleven and sixteen. Early or late maturation can have the following consequences:

  • Early-maturing girls and late-maturing boys tend to have more psychological and social problems than their peers.
  • In girls, a correlation exists between early maturation and poorer school performance, earlier sexual activity, more unwanted pregnancies, and a higher likelihood of eating disorders.
  • Both boys and girls who mature early use more alcohol and drugs and have more problems with the law than their peers.


As Erik Erikson pointed out, the search for identity marks an important step in adolescence. Adolescents may go through an identity crisis, during which they struggle to understand themselves and decide their future. The psychologist James Marcia described four identity states, based on where people stand on the path to identity:

  • Identity foreclosure happens when a person prematurely commits to values or roles that others prescribe.
  • Identity moratorium happens when a person delays commitment to an identity. He or she may experiment with various values and roles.
  • Identity diffusion occurs when a person lacks a clear sense of identity but still hasn’t explored issues related to identity development.
  • Identity achievement occurs when a person considers alternative possibilities and commits to a certain identity and path in life.

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