adolescence | Definition, Characteristics, & Stages

Adolescence is the stage of transition between childhood and adulthood that involves biological, cognitive and socio-emotional changes. The word “adolescence” derives from the Latin adolescere which means “to grow to maturity”.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this period ranges from 10 to 19 years of age . They represent one sixth of the world’s population, approximately 1200 million people.

Adolescence is a period of preparation for:

  • physical and sexual maturation,
  • the development of personal identity,
  • the acquisition of intellectual and reasoning abilities, and
  • the preparation to establish social, professional and economic relations, with a view to becoming an adult.

Puberty and adolescence

The Puberty refers to the biological changes of adolescence . The word puberty derives from the Latin pubertas , which means “adult”. In general terms, puberty includes the physical changes that occur as individuals in the boy or girl when they pass from childhood to adulthood.

Puberty can take place between 9 and 16 years for most individuals and consists of five key physical aspects:

  1. An acceleration in growth , which results in changes in height and weight.
  2. The development of the primary sexual characteristics , with the development of the sexual glands.
  3. The development of secondary sexual characteristics , such as changes in the genital organs and the growth of body hair.
  4. The changes in body composition , specifically on the amount and distribution of fat and muscle.
  5. The changes in respiratory and circulatory systems , leading to an increase in strength and endurance.

Puberty starts when the brain produces the hormone or gonadotropin-releasing factor (GnRH). The beginning involves the activation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-gonads axis:

  • The hypothalamus is a structure in the brain that monitors hunger, thirst and sex.
  • The pituitary or pituitary gland is the endocrine gland that controls growth and the other endocrine glands.
  • The gonads are the sexual glands (the testicles in the male sex and the ovaries in the female sex).

Early puberty

Precocious puberty is the term used to describe the premature onset of puberty:

  • before 8 years old in girls;
  • before 9 years old in children.

Stages of adolescence

Early adolescence

In early adolescence the changes that determine the evolution of the individual occur:

  • changes in the brain in preparation for new forms of reasoning;
  • sudden physical body changes;
  • changes in behavior.

Late adolescence

It covers the final half of adolescence. At this stage the interest in romantic and sexual relationships and the need for greater independence of parents increases.

Age of adolescence

There are individual variations in the onset and progress of puberty. In general, in children can start from 10 years to 13.5 years; In girls, the onset of first menstruation or menarche varies between 9 and 15 years of age.

Characteristics of adolescence

Accelerated growth or the “growth spurt”

For girls, the accelerated growth associated with puberty occurs around age 9; in children it happens at 11 years old. During the lug, girls grow on average 9 cm per year and children, about 10 cm per year.

At the beginning of adolescence, girls tend to be taller than boys of their age, but at the end of high school or high school, boys reach and exceed in height in certain cases.

In relation to weight, the speed at which adolescents gain weight resembles that of height. In the stage of greater weight gain, girls can earn up to 8 kg in a year and children, 9 kg per year between 13 and 14 years of age.

Sexual maturation

Three of the most notable signs of sexual maturation in adolescent males are:

  1. penis growth;
  2. development of the testicles;
  3. growth of facial hair.

In adolescents, the most notable signs of onset of puberty are:

  1. the appearance of pubic hair,
  2. the growth of the breasts

Biological changes in adolescence

Puberty begins when the brain produces the hormone or gonadotropin-releasing factor (GnRH) in the hypothalamus. This factor reaches the pituitary or pituitary gland, causing it to produce the hormones lutinizante (LH) and follicle-stimulating (FSH). Through the blood, FSH and LH reach the sexual glands, where they stimulate the production of sex hormones corresponding to the sex of the individual.


As children grow, the brain has to adapt to the living conditions of an adult. It is at puberty that these anatomical and chemical transformations take place. However, the transformations are progressive and staggered. For example, areas that coordinate basic functions, such as the amygdala, mature faster. Areas with more complex and advanced functions, such as abstract thinking, take longer to develop.

It is known that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which controls impulses and mature rational thinking in late adolescence. Instead, the amygdala, the brain area responsible for instincts and risky actions, takes control and encourages adolescents to become independent of their parents. These different levels of brain maturation explain why adolescents show risky behaviors.

Biological changes in girls

Girls usually enter puberty earlier than boys. Among the most notable biological changes that are recognized in girls we have:

  • Increase in height.
  • Breast growth
  • Appearance of pubic and axillary hair.
  • Weight gain.
  • Sweating and body odor
  • First period or menarche.
  • Pimples or pimples on the face and back.
  • Wider hips

Estrogen is the female hormone responsible for the initiation of the development of sexual characteristics during puberty.

Homona Where it is produced Effects on the body
GnRH gonadotropin releasing hormone In the hypothalamus Stimulates the release of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)
Luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) In the pituitary gland Stimulates the release of estrogen and the development of ovules in the ovaries
Estrogens In the ovaries Stimulates changes in puberty, such as growth of the breasts and pubic and underarm hair

Biological changes in children

On average, puberty in boys begins a year later than in females, between 9 and 14 years. Among the most notable biological changes that are recognized in children we have:

  • Increase in height.
  • Emergence of pubic hair, in the armpits, legs, chest and face.
  • Weight gain.
  • The voice grows thicker.
  • Greater sweating and body odor.
  • Pimples or pimples on the face and back.
  • Shoulders widen.
  • The genitals grow.
  • Involuntary erections.

Testosterone is the male hormone responsible for the onset of the development of sexual characteristics during puberty. In testes, testosterone is transformed into dihydrotestosterone (DHT) which is the active form of the hormone and which causes the changes related to puberty.

Hormone Where it is produced Effects on the body
GnRH gonadotropin releasing hormone In the hypothalamus Stimulates the pituitary to release LH and FSH
Luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) In the pituitary gland Stimulates the production of testosterone and sperm in the testes
Testosterone In the testicles Stimulates changes in puberty, such as the growth of the testicles and the penis

Socio-emotional changes in adolescence

  • Search for independence
  • Desire to spend more time with your companions.
  • Conflicts with parents.
  • More interest in romantic relationships.
  • More dramatic mood swings

Body image

A psychological aspect that is common in adolescent males and females is the concern for how their bodies look. In general, young women are more dissatisfied with their bodies, partly motivated by the expectations promoted by the media and the increase in body fat at the puberty stage.

On the contrary, young people experience a better impression of their body as puberty advances, motivated by the increase in muscle mass.

Emotions in adolescence

An emotion is a feeling, sensation or affection that occurs when a person experiences a certain state or interaction. It is characterized by a behavior that reflects the liking or displeasure of the state in which the individual is.

Adolescence is a period of emotional confusion: in a moment they can be on top of the world and the next fall into the abyss. It is important to recognize that these moments of bad humor in the adolescent are a normal and transitory aspect.

Among the stressful experiences that can contribute to emotional changes during adolescence are:

  • the transition from primary school to high school,
  • the beginning of romantic relationships and sexual experiences.

The capacity for effective management and control of emotions is decisive for a positive outcome in adolescent development. In this sense, it is important to be able to communicate emotions constructively to improve the quality of relationships.

Behavior and hormones

High levels of androgens are associated with violence and problem-seeking in male adolescents, while high levels of estrogen are related to depression in adolescents.

Adolescent health

Being a period of great influence in the future of an individual, maintaining healthy habits during adolescence ensures a healthy life and better health expectations for the adult.

Rest and sleep

Adolescents require more hours of sleep (on average nine hours) to better cope with such sudden changes in the brain and body. However, during adolescence, melatonin (the hormone that stimulates sleep) is released very late at night until early in the morning. This is why adolescents become nocturnal creatures and find it difficult to get up early.

Sleep not only produces rest of the body but also a period where the body performs processes associated with growth.

Corporal hygiene

A daily cleaning routine helps keep the body free of unpleasant odors, as well as improving the self-esteem and general well-being of adolescents.

During puberty, there is an overproduction of fat by the sebaceous glands in the scalp, so that the hair looks more greasy and straight. This can also cause dandruff. To avoid these problems, it is advisable to wash your hair regularly with shampoo.

The armpits are full of sweat-producing glands in a warm environment that favors the growth of bacteria and the appearance of unpleasant odors. To prevent this problem, it is advisable to wash your armpits every day with soap and use deodorants or antiperspirants.

To keep the mouth healthy, it is advisable to brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss to remove food residues that have remained between the teeth.

Balanced feeding

During adolescence, the body needs extra nutrients and energy to sustain the changes that are being experienced. Maintaining a balanced diet and developing good eating habits is key to a healthy life, not only during adolescence, but during adulthood.

Physical activity and exercise

Teens should include some form of physical activity in their daily routine to stimulate muscle growth and strengthen bones. On the other hand, exercise can be a release of stress and endorphins.

Sexuality in adolescence

One of the main consequences of puberty is its impact on sexual behavior. For most individuals, adolescence marks the beginning of sexual activity.

One reason why adults worry about teenagers’ early sexual activity is because many of them do not use contraception on a regular basis.

Helping adolescents to understand what sex, pregnancy, contraceptive methods and sexually transmitted diseases are is the main objective of sex education programs.

Pregnancy in adolescence

Pregnancy in adolescence is considered a public health problem. The reasons why early pregnancy affects adolescents noticeably are:

  • increases the risk of maternal mortality, especially in young adolescents.
  • Physical, emotional or financial inability to face motherhood.
  • It disrupts the educational journey and the professional potential.

Adolescent pregnancy is a serious problem in Latin America and the Caribbean. For example, the rate of pregnant teenagers (15 to 19 years) between 2010 and 2015 was 67 births per 1,000 girls, compared to the world rate of 51 births per 1,000 girls, in the same period.

Sexually transmitted diseases in adolescence

Adolescents who have sex are at risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). STDs are infections that are acquired through sexual contact . Among the main ETS that a teenager can suffer are:

  • the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS),
  • genital herpes,
  • The gonorrhea,
  • syphilis,
  • Chlamydia

Eating disorders in adolescence

Because adolescence is a period of dramatic changes in physical appearance, adolescents are affected by the perception of their own image. Eating disorders are a series of conditions characterized by abnormal and harmful eating habits . Between them we have:

  • Overweight and obesity: the consumption of diets rich in calories and fats and sedentary behavior can lead to overweight in adolescents.
  • Anorexia nervosa: is the obsessive pursuit to be thin going hungry, while being perceived as overweight.
  • Bulimia nervosa: is to induce vomiting after excessive food intake or “binge”.
  • Compulsive eating disorder: is the exaggerated food consumption for periods of time that can not be controlled.

Adolescent stereotype

A stereotype is a generalization that reflects our impressions or beliefs about a group of people. The group of adolescents suffers from the stereotype that they are rebellious, lazy, conflictive, problematic, even selfish and addicted. A large majority of adolescents do not fit this negative description.

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