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Child & Adolescent Development: Puberty
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Mental/Emotional/Social Changes through Puberty

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The physical changes that occur during puberty give rise to a variety of social and emotional changes as well. First, the ongoing physical maturation process directly affects body and brain to alter children's needs, interests, and moods. Then, as children start to look and act differently, an array of social influences further accelerate the social and emotional changes children experience.

As children observe that their bodies are changing, they may experience a new and unfamiliar set of social experiences. Reinforced by their first enjoyable experiences of sexual arousal, and by their peers and culture, they become interested in forming what can become intense, romantic, and sometimes sexualized relationships with others. Also, as these bodily changes become visible to others, children may begin to experience being treated differently by others. For example, more rapidly maturing youth may experience an increase in their popularity, while their more slowly maturing peers may experience a decline in popularity. Youth may also notice that other people are suddenly paying a great deal more attention to how they look than they are accustomed.

The physical changes associated with puberty become the basis for new emotional experiences. For example, it is common for parents to note their children become more moody and irritable during this period of their lives. This moodiness is commonly attributed to the sudden and fluctuating hormonal levels, or "raging hormones". It is certainly true that sex hormones are powerful chemical agents that can affect mood. During puberty, the body is adjusting to these fluctuating hormone levels and this fluctuation does create mood swings. However, there are several other physical causes accounting for increased moodiness apart from fluctuating hormones.

Lack of Sleep

Children's moodiness can be affected by their lack of sleep. There are both physical and social reasons for why sleep deficits may occur during puberty. First, the body's sleep-wake cycle is dependent upon a "circadian rhythm" which in turn, is influenced by hormones. During puberty, a natural shift occurs in a teen's circadian rhythm that causes them to feel more fully alert later at night. Unfortunately, they must still rise early for school and other activities. As a result, they get less sleep than they require. This occurs just as their educational, extracurricular, and social schedules become more demanding. Youth may also develop an irregular sleep pattern, such as a desire to "sleep-in' during the weekends, while simultaneously sleeping less during weeknights. This lack of sleep can increase irritability and decrease concentration ability, and contribute to children suddenly finding it difficult to complete tasks that were once simple. This new struggle only adds to their frustration and moodiness.

Adolescent Brains Are Still Maturing

A second factor that complicates adolescent moodiness is that their brains are still physical maturing: Children's brains are not fully developed until they are in their early 20's! This incomplete brain development is responsible for much of the cognitive and emotional immaturity that can so easily frustrate parents.

Cognitive immaturity refers to youths' still-developing thinking skills which are not yet as sophisticated and reliable as those characteristic of adults. Cognitively immature people lack good judgment. Immature thinking result in a youths' having difficulty thinking things through so as to anticipate the consequences of their actions and make informed decisions or choices based upon those anticipated consequences. As a result, youth easily appear (and can indeed be) impulsive, hasty, and even selfish.

The brain's incomplete physical development is also in large part responsible for youthful emotional immaturity. Youth have more difficulty than mature adults in regulating their emotions and putting events in proper perspective. Emotion regulation is an important ability because it enables people to consciously control (within limits) how strongly they will feel emotions like anger, joy or fear. Such control helps people limit the emotional highs and lows that are commonly called "mood swings." To make things worse, during periods of high emotional arousal, the brain's thinking capacity is temporarily further diminished.

Parents need to know about children's still-immature brain structure, sleep alterations and changing hormones and the emotional and cognitive immaturity that results from this still- developing state so that they can regard their children's behavior in proper perspective. Though adolescent children may become moody and make poor choices, they are not doing this purely out of spite, but rather because they cannot be substantially otherwise at this point in their development. Despite their resistance, parents need to continue to provide their adolescent children with clear behavior guidelines and set and enforce age-appropriate behavior limits. Through doing so parents provide children with the proper mixture of safety and freedom they require to enable and enhance their further growth. Children need enough room to express their individuality and to practice (and sometimes fail) independent decision-making AND they need to be protected from the consequences of their worst decisions in order for them to thrive.