Puberty and Sex Differences During Adolescence

Jennifer Nadeau, Natalie Boyd
  • Author
    Jennifer Nadeau

    After receiving her Masters Degree in Education from the University of New Hampshire, Jennifer Nadeau began teaching English Language Arts in 1997. She has currently taught for 23 years at the middle school level at Hampton Academy in New Hampshire. Her professional development includes being a team leader, a member of several education committees and a speaker at the New England League of Middle School Conference for serval years.

  • Instructor
    Natalie Boyd

    Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Learn all about physical development in adolescence. Learn what puberty is, identify the physical changes in adolescence, and see the sex differences in this stage. Updated: 03/21/2022

Physical Development in Adolescence

The word, "adolescence" comes from the Latin word "adolecere" which means "to grow; to mature".

Adolescence is an important period when an individual changes from a being child into being an adult. This time of significant transitions is marked by physical, psychological, and emotional changes. While it is sometimes confused with puberty, there is a difference. Adolescence is a transitional phase marking the start of adulthood while puberty is characterized by specific physical changes due to hormone production. Adolescence is often understood of as three stages prior to adulthood:

  • Early adolescence is the period from ages eleven to fourteen. During this time rapid growth occurs. Interest in sex and curiosity arises, but typically, the level of curiosity is beyond the experience.
  • Mid adolescence is the period from fifteen to seventeen. This is the peak of growth. This is often a time of sexual experimentation and understanding of sexual orientation.
  • Late adolescence is the time from eighteen to twenty-one. Growth slows at this point, and sexual identity is typically coherent and understood.

There are five characteristic changes during the period of adolescence:

  1. Physical changes (commonly known as puberty) are the hallmark of this period. These include changes to the individual's muscle, brain, and skeletal structure. Generally, these changes occur earlier for girls than for boys, however, there are several factors that contribute to the timing of this process.
  2. Social changes are indicated by shifting peer groups, increased sense of independence, and change in self-esteem. It is critical that positive role models appear in an individual's life during this time to ensure that healthy socialization occurs.
  3. Personal changes occur as adolescents learn to develop their own opinions and find their place in the world around them.
  4. Emotional changes are marked by mood swings, which can be intense and unpredictable. As individuals develop their sense of self, they can feel misunderstood, unsupported, and isolated.
  5. Cognitive changes result from increased ability for abstract thought. Language development provides for greater communication skills and thus increases the ability to differentiate between oneself and the values of others.

Physical Changes in Adolescence

The specific physical changes that occur during adolescence are known as puberty. For females, puberty typically begins around age twelve, while for boys, this often starts nearer to fourteen. Puberty does not have a specific beginning end date, but it usually lasts for approximately four years. During this time, physical growth can happen rapidly. These rapid changes are referred to as growth spurts.

Growth spurts often occur one to two years after the onset of puberty. The rate of growth in height and weight during a growth spurt depends on a variety of factors including nutrition, individual genetic history, and socioeconomic status. Adolescents who experience a lack of necessary nutrition may not have the caloric intake needed to fuel the body's requirements for development. An individual's genetic history largely contributes to growth spurts, which is to say that if one looks back as to when a mother or father experienced growth, that will likely be the case for the children as well. Lastly, socioeconomic factors refer to the environment in which a person lives and the quality of relationships in that environment. Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds tend to have reduced trending growth during puberty. This is believed to result from a lack of healthy foods and exercise.

Adolescence and Puberty

Larry is at an awkward time in his life. He's 15 and has begun noticing some serious changes. He suddenly has problems with pimples, and he has hair growing in odd places. His voice sometimes cracks, and he's grown several inches in the last year alone!

Larry's not alone. His twin sister Linda is also going through changes. She, too, has pimples, and her body is growing softer and fuller in certain areas.

Larry and Linda are in adolescence, which is the transitional time between childhood and adulthood. Generally, adolescence is defined as between ages 13 and 20. During adolescence, children go through puberty, which is a period of about four years of physical development that ends when a person is able to reproduce. Notice that adolescence encompasses many different changes: physical, emotional, intellectual and social. But puberty is just the physical changes.

Let's look closer at some of the physical developments in adolescence and puberty, including growth spurts and differences in development at this stage of life.

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Growth Spurt

Remember how Larry has grown several inches in the past year? Linda, too, is growing taller. It seems like they are both getting bigger every single day!

Puberty is triggered by hormones. Among other things that hormones do, they cause people to get physically bigger. A growth spurt is a rapid increase in skeletal size. These sometimes seem to happen overnight, as adolescents get taller very quickly.

Larry and Linda have experienced growth spurts in the past year. They've both grown several inches and sometimes all at once. For example, Larry grew two inches taller over the last summer vacation from school.

There are many factors that can influence growth spurts. Genetics play a role, as do environmental factors. Nutrition, health care and socioeconomic status have all been linked to growth spurts. Children who are malnourished, for example, may not experience dramatic growth spurts the same way that those who have access to a well-balanced diet do.

Growth spurts and other changes in puberty can lead to body image issues. For example, after her most recent growth spurt, Linda is taller than every boy in her class. She feels embarrassed by this, and wishes she was petite like some of her friends. She's even started slumping down when she walks so that she doesn't look as tall as she is.

Biological Sex Differences

Though Larry and Linda are both going through adolescence, puberty struck them at different times. Linda has been having issues with acne and has been growing and developing physically for a couple of years now. For her, the physical changes of puberty started at around age 12.

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Video Transcript

Adolescence and Puberty

Larry is at an awkward time in his life. He's 15 and has begun noticing some serious changes. He suddenly has problems with pimples, and he has hair growing in odd places. His voice sometimes cracks, and he's grown several inches in the last year alone!

Larry's not alone. His twin sister Linda is also going through changes. She, too, has pimples, and her body is growing softer and fuller in certain areas.

Larry and Linda are in adolescence, which is the transitional time between childhood and adulthood. Generally, adolescence is defined as between ages 13 and 20. During adolescence, children go through puberty, which is a period of about four years of physical development that ends when a person is able to reproduce. Notice that adolescence encompasses many different changes: physical, emotional, intellectual and social. But puberty is just the physical changes.

Let's look closer at some of the physical developments in adolescence and puberty, including growth spurts and differences in development at this stage of life.

Growth Spurt

Remember how Larry has grown several inches in the past year? Linda, too, is growing taller. It seems like they are both getting bigger every single day!

Puberty is triggered by hormones. Among other things that hormones do, they cause people to get physically bigger. A growth spurt is a rapid increase in skeletal size. These sometimes seem to happen overnight, as adolescents get taller very quickly.

Larry and Linda have experienced growth spurts in the past year. They've both grown several inches and sometimes all at once. For example, Larry grew two inches taller over the last summer vacation from school.

There are many factors that can influence growth spurts. Genetics play a role, as do environmental factors. Nutrition, health care and socioeconomic status have all been linked to growth spurts. Children who are malnourished, for example, may not experience dramatic growth spurts the same way that those who have access to a well-balanced diet do.

Growth spurts and other changes in puberty can lead to body image issues. For example, after her most recent growth spurt, Linda is taller than every boy in her class. She feels embarrassed by this, and wishes she was petite like some of her friends. She's even started slumping down when she walks so that she doesn't look as tall as she is.

Biological Sex Differences

Though Larry and Linda are both going through adolescence, puberty struck them at different times. Linda has been having issues with acne and has been growing and developing physically for a couple of years now. For her, the physical changes of puberty started at around age 12.

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