Sex and Adolescence: The Physical, Emotional, and Moral Complexities

As teens traverse the bridge between childhood and adulthood, they may experience some challenging discrepancies. For instance, the biological changes begin to take place without the equivalent social, emotional, and psychological development. Adults who meet grown teens for the first time might expect more from them because of their physical size and treat them differently than if their biological changes were not evident.


This may be true for a teen’s sexual development as well. Those teens who have gone through the sexual maturing process of puberty and who might be biologically ready for procreation and romantic partnership may not yet have the emotional or psychological to take on such responsibilities.  At the same time, although attraction and the curiosity to participate in sex affects many teens, many also have a moral preference to wait, which frequently gets challenged by their physical urges.


The sexual maturing process is precisely the definition of puberty. Puberty is experienced differently for males and females and its onset varies in age. For boys it is when they develop the ability to ejaculate semen, and for girls, it is their first menstrual period. Typically, puberty begins much earlier for girls than boys and is often followed by a growth spurt in both genders. Because of the wide variations in age in relationship to puberty, it is hard to firmly define the beginning and end of adolescence. However, age 12 is often used as the start of the teenage years and age 20 often marks its end.


In the United States, puberty is reached at around age 12.8 for girls and age 14 for boys. Of course, this age fluctuates with each teen. It can be as early as age 9 and as late as age 16 for girls, whereas puberty can begin in boys as early as age 11.


Along with managing the moral and physical demands of their maturing sexuality, adolescence is also a time for self-discovering. This may include issues with gender, sexual orientation, and physical appearance. Males and females face different challenges with respect to these concerns. Girls, for example, frequently battle with physical appearance concerns. They go through noticeable body changes, and they may struggle internally because of feeling caught between being a girl and a woman. Furthermore, girls, may face pressures to look a certain way, to have a certain body type, which can foster insecurity and even eating disorders.


Male adolescents may struggle with this as well. They too are going through a process of self-identity. They want to want to fit in with the norms of their peers but at the same time are trying to figure out just who they really are. This might become incredibly challenging when some teens discover that they are gay or transgender or bisexual. In fact, for some teens, this means a threat to their life. Teens have the difficult challenge of balancing the pressure to fit in with being who they are.


This challenge might only be exacerbated by a teen’s emotional and psychological changes. Teens tend to believe that they are the center of attention, even when they are not. For instance, an adolescent might be grossly concerned about how he or she looks because “everybody’s noticing”. There seems to be a large imaginary audience for teens that makes them particularly egocentric. However, this is not necessarily a negative trait of adolescence. In fact, it leads to a sense of being invincible, invulnerable, and the heroes of their own personal fantasy. Along these lines, teens have a tendency to be emotional and impulsive, making decisions based upon their strong feelings.


Certainly, adolescence is an awkward time. There are biological changes that are occurring at a different pace than psychological and emotional ones. Knowing about these various stages of development can help a teen make sense of the challenges he or she might be experiencing. And if you’re a caregiver, you can facilitate a teen’s move through these transitions with caring and compassionate conversations using the above information. Your support and love will also ease the trials of adolescence and make possible a successful step into adulthood.