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Puberty and Adolescence

Growing Pains

When people talk about puberty, teenagers and adolescence, the things that come to mind are: raging hormones, cracking voices, budding breasts, menstruation, cranky, rebellious teenagers, sprouting hair, acne, wearing bras for the first time, and razor knicks on fresh-faced youth.

The onset of puberty is the most obvious sign of 'growing up' physically. To put it more formally, puberty can be defined as "a biological or physiological process characterized by the maturation of the sexual organs and the appearance of secondary sexual characteristics." People often think that puberty and adolescence refer to the same thing. However, they refer to two different aspects of growing up. While puberty covers the physical, adolescence deals with the mental and has been described as a "psychosocial process characterized by mental and social growth, and often extending from puberty to the early 20s and sometimes beyond."

A question of hormones

When does this transformation begin? For girls it can happen any time between the ages of 8 and 12, while for boys it usually begins a couple of years later than girls. But there is no such thing as the right time. So there's no point wondering why she has breasts and you don't or why he's got a mustache and you don't. 

So what exactly happens? It's as if a switch clicks on in the brain and activates a section of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus, in turn, triggers the pituitary gland to produce two hormones - follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). The pituitary gland also releases a growth hormone called somatotropin. 

FSH and LH are released cyclically in females and play a key role in the menstrual cycle. They stimulate the ovaries to secrete estrogen and progesterone and are responsible for the growth of the egg in the ovary. 

In the case of males, these hormones target the testes, which are responsible for the production of sperm and testosterone. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland monitor the level of testosterone in the blood and produce more or less releasing factors to raise and lower the testosterone levels as required. 

First bras and new razors

While all this is happening on the inside, what's going on on the outside? As a result of all this hormonal activity, girls' breasts get bigger and it's time to buy their first bras; they become more hairy, especially in the pubic area and they begin to menstruate. Boys, on the other hand, suddenly shoot up in height, downy fuzz appears on their chins and upper lips attempting to pass off as a beard and mustache; their voices crack at the most crucial and embarrassing moments; and finally, their penises and testes grow.  

Emotional roller coaster

Most adolescents are uncomfortable and self-conscious about their growing breasts and suddenly awkward limbs. They feel that people are looking at them differently. Every pimple seems magnified a hundred times and girls hunch over trying to conceal their growing bust lines.  To make matters worse, most parents are at a loss when faced with their children's budding sexuality. They cannot accept the fact that their 'babies' are talking and thinking about sex. As a result, adolescents are ecstatic one minute, irritable and moody the next. On one hand, they display a newfound maturity in keeping with their 'adult' status. On the other, they throw tantrums that could rival a three-year-old.

Puberty and adolescence bring with them a lot of emotional baggage. People in their adolescent years feel like they are in a twilight zone, hanging somewhere in the middle of childhood and adulthood. It's as if they're sitting on an emotional seesaw, feeling 'up' one minute, down the next; feeling old on some days, and like a child on others. It is a difficult time, but it makes one feel better to think that everyone goes through it. 

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