Helping Teens Answer the Question "Who Am I?": Physical Development

By — University of Florida IFAS Extension
Updated on Jan 2, 2009

The journey from childhood to adolescence is very challenging. Between the ages of 10 and 17 there are major changes in physical, cognitive, social, and moral development. The major task for adolescents is to establish their self-identity. By determining--as best they can--a sense of who they are, they attempt to move into a group that reflects or reinforces this self-identity. The group allows them to feel that they stand out from the crowd. This phase of development allows the adolescent to search for their sense of self. This is in order to answer the increasingly important question that they could not consider in earlier stages of development: "Who am I?"

Physical Development

Physical development is a critical part of adolescence. How an adolescent perceives their physical self; that is, what they think they look like and how they feel about it, directly relates to their overall sense of self-worth. Many of these feelings are influenced by their culture, the media, their peers, and their families. They are also influenced by their own initial sense of self-esteem as they enter this rapidly changing phase of physical development. We know that the changes are rapid and often drastic, resulting in rapid growth and physical maturity.

In order to examine physical development in adolescence, it may be broken down into two main stages. These smaller stages will focus on early adolescence, which is during the ages of approximately 10-14 for most children, and then late adolescence, occurring during the ages of 15-18. Many professionals are also using the term "emerging adulthood" to extend the period of adolescence into early adulthood, typically the ages of 18-23. This is the result of many American youth delaying adulthood by attending college or vocational schools prior to taking on the responsibilities of adulthood.

Early adolescence, ages 10-14 years

During this early stageof adolesence there is a sharp increase in physical growth. Coming off the childhood spurts of 10 yrs for girls and 10 ½ yrs for boys, changes occur in early adolescence at around age 11. Girls become taller and heavier. Their pubertal growth spurt happens about two years earlier than boys. At around age 14, however, the boys growth spurt begins again and they pass the girls, as the girls are almost finished growing. Body changes occur during puberty that reverse some of the basic growth trends of childhood. For example, the hands, legs, and feet accelerate and then the torso, resulting in the adolescent height gain (Wheeler, 1991). This explains why adolescents often seem out of proportion for a while. They are awkward and gangly with long legs, and feet and hands that don't seem to fit the rest of their body. Then the body fills out. This explains the need for clothes that change sizes with the filling out of the frame (Berk, 2000).

Boys tend to end up larger than girls. This is a result of two extra years of preadolescent growth. Their legs are longer in relation to their body and they have broader shoulders in relation to their hips. Meanwhile, girls end up with hips that are broader in relation to their shoulders and waist. This is a result of the sex hormones acting on skeletal growth. Gains in large muscle development have leveled off by age 14 for girls. But, boys continue to experience a dramatic spurt in strength, speed, and endurance.

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