Child & Adolescent Development: Puberty
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Social Pressures Influence Mood and Behavior

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

Several, purely social changes associated with puberty further complicate adolescent lives and add to their propensity for moodiness. Three primary social changes that stress adolescent youth include:

serious teen girl1. That they are simply expected to do more than when they were younger,

2. Normal age-appropriate desire for increased individuality and self-expression, and

3. Newly developing sexuality and sexual feelings, and the many ways these feelings and desires complicate life.

Adolescent Youth Have More Going On In Their Lives

First, youth are simply expected to participate in more purposeful activities than they when they were younger. By adolescence, children may be covering as many as eight academic subjects, participate on several sports teams or in other after-school activities, and navigate multiple, complicated relationships with their peers. In short, their days are now filled with activities when before they had more free time.

In addition to being literally busy, children are also subject to increasing expectations with regard to their social competency and skill. Selfish behavior or temper tantrums that were tolerated in a toddler now become unacceptable ways to act for pubescent children. As the rules for acceptable behavior tighten around them, many children will struggle to cope and to simply understand what is now expected of them.

The external pressure on children is now complemented by their own internal feelings of pressure, as they cope with brand new sexual desires and interests that strongly motivate them (and stress them) to pursue relationships.

These various sources of social and internal pressure, and demands on children's time combine to make children's' lives a potential emotional rollercoaster, with many opportunities for extremely uplifting, exciting experiences but also numerous difficult, upsetting, or confusing ones. A pre-teen may experience the exhilarating high of getting an "A" on a difficult math test, only to be crushed a few minutes later, when his girlfriend dumps him through a note passed to him at lunch. It makes sense, as pre-teens and teenagers go through these new and unfamiliar experiences each day, that they react to those experiences, producing occasions for joy and despair.

Increased Desire for Independent Identity and Self-Expression

Another social change that can increase stress for youth and their families is the normal increased desire for individuality and self-expression that pre-teen youth commonly experience. Puberty and ensuing adolescence are times when youth start to separate themselves from their immediate family and create an independent identity. They accomplish this task by experimenting so as to figure what their needs are and how they can best go about meeting them. Youth will always find ways to assert this independence, but it is an open question whether they will find healthy ways in which to do it. A mixture of healthy and unhealthy experimentation is normal. Children may experiment with becoming an ethical person by standing up for a fellow classmate who is getting picked on, or a responsible person by taking the initiative to complete all their homework without being reminded by Mom. However, they may also experiment with unhealthy choices such as trying a cigarette with friends, or choosing to speak disrespectfully to their parents.

Adolescent youth experiment with different identities (values, music, religion, etc.) to determine what sort of person they'd like to become. Youth may experiment with their physical appearance by altering their clothing, hair styles and colors, and make up. Some older adolescents may even want to get a body piercing or a tattoo. Youth may also experiment with different friends, peer groups, and activities. Some new friends may be youth who are making mostly healthy decisions, but some friends may be youth who are struggling. Youth may also challenge long-standing family traditions. For example, while James may have always enjoyed the family's tradition of Saturday movie night, he may now argue, and whine when asked to participate. Instead, he may express his desire to get together with his friends at Karen's house to play video games.

Youth may also begin to question or challenge their family's beliefs and values, including deeply cherished cultural and religious beliefs. A child who has grown up in a home that taught strict Christian ideals, and who regularly attends church activities, may suddenly show an interest in other world religions and begin practicing certain tenets of those religions. Alternatively, children may lose interest in religion altogether. These sorts of challenges can be deeply painful and difficult for parents to endure.

 




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