Adolescence and puberty
What is the precise adolescence period? It is difficult to define it. But, broadly speaking, adolescence starts when the individual attains sexual maturity and ends when independence from parental authority is assured. Since the age of sexual maturing varies a lot, marking off the beginning of adolescence is rather difficult.
Are adolescence and puberty synonymous? No, not really. Whereas adolescence refers to all stages of maturing, puberty relates to sexual maturing only.
Adolescence, for instance, extends from 13 to 18 years in girls and 14 to 18 years in boys. Puberty, on the contrary, is an overlapping period. Out of an average of four years, about two years are spent in preparing the body for reproduction (this period overlaps with the end of childhood, the pre-adolescence and pubescence). The remaining two years are spent in completing the process; these overlap with early adolescence.
On an average, growth spurt occurs at 10 to 12 years in girls and 12 to 13 years in boys. The child shows remarkable gain in height in a year. Since girls usually have spurt earlier than the boys by about two years, girls of the same age as that of the boys will be taller, more mature and more sophisticated than the boys. All too soon (in a couple of years or so), the boys, however, do catch up.
The control of puberty is by the endocrine glands which are found in the brain (pituitary glands), in the neck (thyroid glands), on top of the kidneys (adrenal glands) and reproductive system (testicles in males, ovaries in females). These glands produce chemical substances known as hormones.
Puberty changes in girls
Puberty changes in girls begin to show up at 10 to 12 years. Their common order of appearance is:
(i) Breast changes, like pigmentation of areola and enlargement of breast tissue and nipple, are perhaps the earliest to occur. In a good proportion of the girls, one breast grows faster than the other. The girl is likely to feel distressed over this odd development. She needs to be reassured that, with passage of time, the size dissimilarity would disappear.
Most growing girls are under the impression that their nipples
should always remain erect and tight. That is not true. Some girls have inverted nipples or non-protruding nipples. This again is no issue for worrying. The mother should feel convinced that all is well and tell the same to the growing girl in no uncertain terms. In the event of the problem still causing undue anxiety to the girl, it would be in order to seek medical opinion.
(ii) Increase in pelvic girth and the resultant broadening of the hips.
(iii) Pubic hair appears at this stage. Hair may also appear on other body parts including armpits.
(iv) Menarche, i.e. the first menstruation or bleed occurs usually two years after first manifestation of puberty. It is held that menstruation generally occurs every 28 days and lasts for five days on an average.
Every mother needs to tell her adolescent daughter that, in puberty in particular, periods may occur at three weeks, six weeks or longer intervals. Also, the period may vary from two days to seven days; so may happen with the intensity of blood loss: it may be scanty or heavy.
A year after the onset of menarche, the girl is likely to establish a more or less definite menstrual cycle of her own which would persist in later years.
The mother should guide her adolescent daughter about the use of a ready-made sanitary napkin (disposable is to be preferred) that she can wear with comfort and confidence.
What is also to be remembered is that a high strung personality, illness or anxiety may lead to a very heavy blood loss or to skipping of the period.
There are girls in whom lower abdominal cramps – at times almost disabling – accompany the period. Yet, another group of teenagers suffer from tender and swollen breasts a little before or during the period. Such girls need reassurance and normal activity. Painkillers often prove handy to them.
Though girls should regard menstruation as a normal physiological function like passing urine or motion, quite often it is the other way round. Many girls are unfortunately conditioned to expect that they would “suffer as badly” as their fussy mothers do during the menstrual period. When their time comes, they behave “just as the mother does” with painful menstruation and anxiety. This is called dysmenorrhoea. The latter could well be the result of a medical problem – the unevenness of hormone production. So, remember to consult the doctor as and when in doubt.
Puberty changes in boys
It is around the age of 12 to 13 years that puberty changes in boys start appearing. The sequence of events is as follows:
(i) Enlargement of external genitals i.e., penis and testicles occur.
(ii) Appearance of pubic hair is followed by hair in armpits, groin, thighs and between pubis and umbilicus (navel). Facial hair appears about two years after the pubic hair.
(iii) Changes in voice occur. The voice breaks and is odd. It fits neither with that of the child nor the adult.
(iv) Nocturnal discharge of semen involuntarily, often as the adolescent is asleep during night, is as important to a boy as menstruation to a girl. It is also popularly referred to as wet dream. The parents must communicate to him that it is a perfectly normal phenomenon and is in fact a sign of his “manliness”. Else, he may suffer from a feeling of guilt and anxiety.
Recently I asked 100 successive fathers of teenage boys: “Did you ever forewarn your child about the first ejaculation of seminal fluid and the so-called wet dreams? Did you tell him all that was perfectly normal and needed to cause no worry?” Just imagine only 10 gentlemen replied in affirmative to my first question. There was only one “yes” to the second query.
The mothers would do well to remember that they must see to it that the father does find time to guide their growing child on this score. Else, the child’s guilt has already done him a grave harm before he learns from somewhere that “it is all normal and harmless.”
Adolescent and sex
The importance of sex drive in adolescent’s behaviour is vital. Freud has gone a step further in saying that “sexuality affects and is affected” by behaviour in every sphere of life and activity. Imagine when he stresses that “sex drive is the basis for all constructive action” which, perhaps, will not be agreed upon by some!
It is important to appreciate that a girl is capable of becoming a mother as soon as she starts her menstruation. In the same way, a boy can become a father once he begins to have ejaculation of seminal fluid containing sperms produced by the testicles. Yet, remember they are not capable of parental responsibility at this early stage. They need to be told that teens should be crossed before they embark on ultimate sexual adventure. That is not to say that intermixing with the opposite sex should be discouraged. On the contrary, it should be encouraged. What is significant is that the parents must speak to their teenager sons and daughters in a spirit of love and understanding, clarifying the difference between “healthy and mature friendliness” and “practical sex adventure”. “Love” must take decided priority over “sexuality” during adolescence.
Masturbation: Almost every teenager – yes, boys as well as girls – find pleasant sensation by handling the external genitals and achieving what is known as orgasm.
The self-gratification, self-stimulation or masturbation is, in a way, the adolescent’s attempt to kick out the “sex fire” smouldering inside the body. It does give him comfort.
Many children demonstrate rhythmic fondling of the genitals as early as the third year of life. But it is only at puberty that a boy will get erection as well as discharge of semen. The boys achieve orgasm by rubbing the penis against something (may be a cushion, quilt or dummy) or by handling the organ in their hands. What they try to accomplish is a mimicry of the act of intercourse through thrusting movements.
What are the exciting factors which lead to the erection of the penis? Sex fantasies, sex discussion, reading sex stories, “sexciting” pictures of girls, sexy movies, or as simple a thing as friction may act as a “stimulus”. The “stimulus” fills the sponge-like penis with lots of warm blood. As a result the organ changes into a stiff, erect and strong structure whose size will vary from person to person.
The frequency of masturbation varies from individual to individual. Some do it just once in a while whereas others may masturbate quite a few times every day. Researchers say that 99 per cent of the men and women have indulged in this practice at one time or another.
Is masturbation harmful? No. In fact it is an absolutely normal behaviour. It is a natural thing to do. Many authorities describe it as an “essential component of an adolescent’s psycho-sexual development”. The parents must realise this fact and tell the teenage son or daughter so in clear-cut terms.
Many parents, on the other hand, mishandle the situation. It is absurd to get into the teenager’s head that masturbation is “bad”, “a wicked thing to do”, or “a dirty, stupid habit”. There are parents who tell their sons that “if you repeat the silly thing, you will become impotent” or “you do it again and your penis will surely fall.” Such parents hardly understand that threats like that are very damaging to the boy.
Masturbation is more or less a harmless thing and the parents are advised to ignore it rather than to make it an issue. Else, the sense of “guilt” will tear the teenager from inside. Serious anxiety and fear tells upon his personality a great deal. He gradually withdraws from his social circle and becomes self-centred. His school work suffers as also his performance in the playground. But, does all that stop the habit? Hardly! As a matter of fact, it establishes its roots still more. It is a different matter that he may make sure that parents do not get an inkling of his “doing”.
So, parents, don’t be fussy and anxious if your son or daughter indulges in “self-gratification”. Even at the expense of repetition, I must say that it is just a harmless habit, leading to neither impotency nor insanity, epilepsy, brain damage, growth failure or anything else. If your ward is doing too much of it, divert his attention to swimming, sports or some other interest that he finds appealing. But do not ever cause a feeling of guilt in the little man or woman. Please! Else, you would find yourself backfired.
Homosexuality: In families where interest in sex is regarded a “taboo” and repressed, child-parent relationship is unhealthy and children are made to live unhappily. Odd sex problems often result among the adolescents. Homosexuality refers to sexual involvement of an individual with a member of the same sex rather than that of the opposite sex.
Eminent researchers believe that, more often than not, roots of homosexuality are laid in childhood per se. As for instance, dressing a girl in boy’s clothing or the boy in that of the girl may have far-reaching repercussions. Some parents pride in scolding children for evincing interest in the opposite sex and in censoring the movies they see, books they read or the exhibitions they visit. It has been found that in a majority of the cases of homosexuality the father is of a weak personality whereas the mother is dominant and overprotective.
Where do we go from here? It is felt that the problem of homosexuality can be adequately dealt with if parents exercise caution and understanding in handling children. They should not discourage children from getting answers to their queries about sex. Neither should they project sex interest as “silly” or “disgraceful”. Also, it is a healthy practice to put the children in co-educational schools rather than institutions where sexes are segregated.
It is a common observation that in a vast majority of the homosexual boys and girls the habit dies down before long. The parents should not pay much attention to the “perversion”. Too much fussiness and anxiety will only aggravate it. An explanation of the sexual role and its ultimate objective and understanding on the part of the teenager as he matures will finally induce his interest in the opposite sex.
Venereal diseases: As I said earlier a teenager is capable of producing children but is, however, not suited to do so at this stage. He should, therefore, refrain from rushing into an actual sex encounter. You, perhaps, are given to understand that all the teenagers do, in fact, avoid the “forbidden apple”. They don’t. That’s a pity, however.
Experience has shown that the incidence of teenage mothers and fathers is constantly increasing, not only in the permissive society of the West but also among the Asians.
Also, venereal diseases (syphilis and gonorrhoea) in the very young are now rising. One cause of this rise is increasing curiosity on the part of the adolescent to explore the Pandora’s box since he has seldom been explained the mystery of sex. Another factor that has contributed to it is the overemphasis on sex and permissiveness in the movies and commercial advertisements and the blue films which have now invaded India and other Asian countries in a big way.
The parents and the teachers will do well to ensure that the young receive sex education to prevent such avoidable disease and trauma. They should resolve the youngsters’ doubts in open discussions. The time and energy devoted on sermons about chastity, if diverted to practical sex education, would bring gratifying and fruitful dividends.