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Child Development Theory: Adolescence (12-24)

Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Young Adolescence, Twelve to Fourteen Years Old

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 20th 2007

As July wanes and we approach August many parents and children are thinking about school, especially since many communities open their schools in mid August. In this web log entry we will center on a group of youngsters who are entering Middle School and what this stage of life portends for many of them in school, at home and in relation to their selves.

For many children twelve years of age represents the beginning of revolutionary changes. For the fourteen years old the twelfth year is looked upon scornfully because they were still too child like two years ago. What happens between those two years?

Physical Changes:

Around the 11 and twelve years of age most children begin to experience a surge of hormones that suddenly transform child like bodies into adult bodies.

1. Girls experience their menses which is their first and tenuous menstruation. During the ensuing year this menses will grow more regular and predictable. Other physical changes to girls' bodies are the development of breasts, pubic hair, and the fatty layer under the skin that causes female bodies to appear soft and feminine along with typical female body contours. Many girls begin to experiment with masturbation at this time.

2. Boys experience the development of their Adam’s apple in the throat that changes the high and immature voices of little children into the sonorous tones of the adult male. In addition, male genitals mature and boys experience erections with a frequency and with pleasurable sensations that are new to them. A surge in height occurs along with pubic hair, facial hair and development of the lanky bodies that typify the adult male person. Most boys begin masturbating at this time.

3. Males and Females both react to many of these physical changes with mixed feelings that alternate between disgust, shame, embarrassment, confusion, pride, joy and excitement.

4. Males and female now become keenly aware of and interested in the opposite sex. Among male and female peer groups there is lots of discussion about members of the opposite sex and some sexual experimenting in the form of kissing, touching and feeling. In some instances, full sexual intercourse may begin.

School Changes:

The onset of puberty and adolescence occurs at the same time that youngsters leave the familiarity of their local elementary schools to enter the larger and more daunting world of middle school. Middle schools draw students from a wider geographic area than elementary schools with the result that the student population is more diverse in ethnicity, social class makeup and religion than was true during the earlier school years.

Youngsters enter these larger schools with a lot of anxiety about making friends, doing well in school and adjusting to a different and more mature type of life. For instance, students move independently from teacher to teacher and from subject to subject as they move through the day. This greater independence is a source of both excitement and apprehension for many youngsters.

Youngsters also enter the middle school with many self conscious feelings about their physical appearance. At this age there is wide diversity of body sizes, types and levels of maturity. Some boys will look as tall as adult men while others remain looking very young and undeveloped. This is the same for the girls. Generally, the girls, as a group, are two years ahead of their male peers in terms of physical development and social maturity.

Changes in Relationship to Family:

If the onset of puberty and adolescence is a time of wonderment and stress for the youngsters it is equally so for parents. How parents react to the new set of circumstance with which they are faced depends a lot on their experiences when they were young and their ability to understand and tolerate a lot of what is about to happen.

What is about to happen is that the nice sweet and innocent child of twelve now becomes more assertive and, at times, rebellious about wanting separateness from the family. Males and females gravitate towards their peer groups with a significant decline in the amount of time spent at home. They want to "hang out" in the neighborhood, the local mall and the movie theaters. They want to have sleep-over’s at their house and go to sleep over’s at the homes of their friends. During these many youngsters delight at watching scary movies together while munching on popcorn and potato chips.

Mood swings occur as hormones take their toll on young teenagers and emotions. It is easy for young adolescent girls to suddenly shift from feeling happy and being smiley and cooperative around the house to irritable, impatient and intolerant of anything said by other siblings or by mom or dad. Then too, these girls have been known to burst out into tears for no apparent reason.

It is difficult for parents to negotiate the mine field of young adolescence as they discover that they can say and do nothing right. Some parents may make the unfortunate mistake of believing they should leave their teens to their own devices to figure things out by themselves. These parents actually believe the propaganda coming from their children that they are now adults and can fend for them selves. In actuality, young people want to know that their parents are there, can be consulted and relied upon. They also want their parents involved in school issues and to be available for consultation on many problems. In other words, there is great ambivalence at this beginning stage of adolescence when the males and females demand independence but quietly value their dependence and the safety of parents and home.

It is therefore important that parents be available to their young adolescents by:

1. Setting sensible and clear limits, such as curfews and times to be home for meals.

2. Remaining involved with issues of school, teachers, homework, grades and school and class attendance.

3. Being on the alert for signs of drug and alcohol abuse.

4. being aware of serious signs of depression.

5. Listening to what their youngsters are talking about without being hostile or judgmental.

Contrary to what some mistaken parents might believe, adolescence is a time when parents and family are needed more than ever.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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