North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service

Living With Your Teenager

Issue Four -- Understanding Physical Changes

Physical Changes Are Dramatic

The years of late childhood and early adolescence are one of the most rapid and dramatic periods of physical change in the human life cycle. It is during these years children become adults in physical body. Parents of teens or teens-to-be should understand what is happening to them. This understanding may assist parents in supporting their child through this difficult time.

As early as age 7 or 8 in girls and age 9 or 10 in boys there are the beginnings of internal changes in both the growth of organs and the presence of certain adult-type hormones. For most girls, the period of the least growth is from age 9 to 10. From age 10 on, most girls experience a sudden growth spurt that lasts until about age 12. After 12, most girls continue growing until about age 17 or 18.

Boys usually begin their growth spurt about 12 to 18 months after most girls. Boys continue to grow three to four years after most girls have finished growing, so boys often do not finish growing until age 20 or 21. Of course, the average boy grows to be bigger and heavier than the average girl.

Besides growing bigger and taller, the maturing child begins to develop the bodily characteristics that distinguish the male and female adult. While it is often difficult to tell which of two T-shirt and blue jean-clad 8-year-olds is the girl and which is the boy, the differences in the same children at age 11 or 12 are quite obvious.

Preparing for Change is Important

For girls:

The onset of menstruation is an important event. A girl's feelings about menstruation and the way she accepts its onset usually have a good deal to do with her parent's feelings about it and how she's been prepared for it. Parents who can maintain the attitude that menstruation is an exciting developmental event, normal in all females, can help their daughters adjust to menstruation easily.

Girls need to know what will happen and how they will care for themselves, as well as why menstruation occurs. In addition, girls who understand there is no "right" age for the onset of menstruation will have far fewer worries about being "early" or "late." Finally, menstruating girls should understand they are now fertile and able to become pregnant.

For boys:

Although boys do not experience an "event" like menstruation, they may worry about aspects of their maturing as men. For example, the appearance of facial and body hair may be seen as a sign of manhood, and the boy who is maturing later than his friends may have many concerns about his masculinity. As with girls, the path to sexual maturity can be smoothed for boys by parents who are open and informative.

Emotional and physical maturity are different

Children today mature emotionally two to three years later than children of their great-great-grandparents' time. Young people often married between the ages of 15 and 18. Today, children are sexually mature in a physical sense long before they are capable of mature adult relationships. At the same time, however, films, television, newspapers and other media put great emphasis on sexuality. Consequently, teens may be very confused by the need to respond to physical impulses that are seemingly encouraged by society but yet frowned upon at home, in school and in the church or temple. There is probably no other area in which teens need parents' support, understanding and encouragement more than in the difficult area of making decisions about sexual activity.

Although the best way for young people to learn about their sexuality is through their parents, many parents find it extremely difficult or impossible to discuss this subject with their children. If the parents cannot teach their children, it remains their responsibility to see they learn through books, school or a doctor, nurse, social worker or another informed adult who is willing to teach.

Physical Change Can Cause Emotional Upset

The physical growth of teens is triggered by the appearance of certain hormones that stimulate the body to grow and change. Both parents and teens should remember that these hormones affect moods as well as physical growth. Young teens are often very worried about their feelings.

One girl said, "Some days I'm way up and other days I'm way down, and the way I feel doesn't seem to have much to do with what's going on around me. It really scares me that I have these feelings that come from nowhere." Once the effects of hormones on moods were explained to her, she was much less frightened of her feelings. Teens may need this information.

The sudden and extreme growth teens go through can also cause problems with coordination. Parents may complain of teens who have suddenly become so clumsy "they trip over their own feet." This problem is caused partly by general changes in the body that take getting used to and partly by the fact that different parts of the body grow at different rates. Hands and feet, for example, grow much faster than legs and arms. Consider the problems adults would have if their feet grew from their present size 6 to size 9 in six months!

Features of the face also grow at different rates, so young teens who are convinced their noses are too big may be quite right for a time. Soon, however, the rest of their facial features will grow in proportion and those noses won't seem so large. Knowing these facts may help parents to be more tolerant of their awkward teen and may help their teen be less concerned about temporary physical "problems."

No Set Timetable for Change

When children are quite small, parents are constantly reminded not to compare them to the child next door. Babies begin to walk and talk at different ages, and unless children are seriously "off schedule" or have noticeable problems, parents need not worry if they develop certain skills sooner or later than other children. The same advice holds true for teenagers. As people mature, there is even greater variability in their abilities and their sizes.

Teens are now or will soon be going through one of the most exciting and frightening periods of life. Parents' support and concern at this time can do a great deal to cement happy relationships that will continue through the years of growth and change ahead.


Adults should:

Adapted for use in North Dakota by DonnaRae Jacobson, family science specialist, NDSU Extension Service, from a publication written by Judith O. Hooper, assistant professor of family studies, University of Wisconsin-Extension.
This newsletter was provided through a collaborative effort of the NDSU Extension Service and North Dakota Department of Human Services.

July 1995

NDSU Extension Service, North Dakota State University of Agriculture and Applied Science, and U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Sharon D. Anderson, Director, Fargo, North Dakota. Distributed in furtherance of the Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914. We offer our programs and facilities to all persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, age, Vietnam era veterans status, or sexual orientation; and are an equal opportunity employer.
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North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service