Common Concerns About Adolescent Physical DevelopmentTeens Parents
This article was contributed by Anisha Abraham, M.D. of the University of Amsterdam.
Common Concerns About Physical Development
Adolescence marks a time of great changes in physical development. It’s a time when teens question what’s happening to their bodies and what’s normal. They often compare themselves to their friends — noticing differences in height as they stand in line or their bodies as they change into gym clothes. Sometimes these changes in development can trigger both parents and teens to have concerns. Those issues can range from concerns about puberty, physical development, self-esteem and body image.
It’s helpful to understand common concerns and issues related to physical development. Being familiar with them will help prepare you to be more comfortable discussing questions and concerns together. Here are some of the most common concerns teens have.
Developing Too Early or Too Late
Boys and girls who develop too early or too late may get teased and have body image concerns. Some studies show that boys who mature earlier tend to be more popular and independent, but are also at a greater risk for early sexual activity and substance use. Early developing girls may face increased bullying, which can contribute to being self-conscious and put them at higher risk for depression and substance abuse. If your teen is progressing early in puberty compared to peers you may want to:
- Reassure them that everyone goes through the changes at different times and that they are normal.
- Ask specifically if they feel unhappy or have been teased or bullied, because of their size or appearance.
- Consider getting help from a professional if this is a significant concern.
Girls and boys who develop more slowly than peers may feel self-conscious about their lack of physical development. According to some studies, negative feelings are particularly an issue for late maturing boys. You can discuss with late developing teen boys that their size and strength are not important for all activities. In fact, there are many sports with a focus on agility and coordination, rather than size or power. There are many other activities outside of athletics where skills and talents are showcased that have nothing to do with physical maturity.
Remember that studies tell you what young people may be more likely to experience, not what will definitely happen to your child. They inform you how the information you share and the support you offer can protect your adolescent.
Look around. You’ll see a vast variation in shapes and sizes of the teens around you. Body fat, muscle mass, and height are all parts of development that can impact how teens view themselves.
It’s normal to feel a bit self-conscious about your appearance sometimes. However, body image concerns may intensify and trigger bigger issues so parents should pay attention. For example, teens often compare themselves to peers and images they see on TV, in magazines and online. As a result, they may put undue pressure on themselves to achieve an idealized and often unrealistic appearance. Ask teens what they see when they view themselves in the mirror and how they feel about their bodies. If your teen persistently feels unhappy about a specific body part, their size, or lack of muscle development, you may want to step in.
Parents can help teens gain a healthy sense of body image. We must start by highlighting our teens positive traits and strengths. Things that have nothing to do with their bodies or appearance. Are they kind, generous, helpful, compassionate, or hard working? These are important qualities to reinforce. Model that you appreciate your own body and its imperfections. Those are the very things that make you…you.
At the same time, real concerns can’t be ignored. Consider counseling early on for tweens or teens who may have ongoing or intense concern with their body image.
Nutrition and Exercise
Sometimes the onset of puberty can lead to problems with eating and changes in exercise levels. Teens who frequently diet, suddenly become vegan or engage in extreme exercise, may signal problems with unhealthy eating patterns or a skewed body image. They could be at risk for nutritional problems such as inadequate iron or calcium intake. On the other hand, teens may consume too much high-sugar and fat foods and cut back on regular physical activity. This can lead to excess weight gain and obesity. All of these are signs not to be taken lightly and deserve a discussion with your child’s healthcare professional.
Sleep cycles go through a period of change during adolescence. It’s common for some teens to stay up later and sleep in longer. But when teens don’t get enough high-quality sleep, it impacts their ability to focus. It can hurt their academic performance. It can lead to changes in mood, weight fluctuations, and a decreased ability to fight off colds and infections. If you are concerned your teen isn’t getting enough sleep or is sleeping too much, consult a health professional. Some parents worry that screen time might be interfering with their teens’ sleep habits. Using computers, phones, or tablets right before bed can make it challenging to fall asleep. Make sure to turn off phones and computers at least an hour before bed and to set night settings on the phone to automatically go on at least 2 hours before bed. Encourage them to stick to a regular bedtime and help them find ways to relax before bed, like taking a shower or listening to quiet music. Remind them that getting high quality and enough sleep will help them be alert and focused the next day.
Skin, Hair and Body Odor Issues
Parents may notice that teens (and all their friends!) suddenly have pimples or a very strong body odor. This happens because glands are activated by hormones and produce more oil during the teen years — resulting in greasier hair, sweaty armpits, oily skin, and increased body odor. Teens can be encouraged to manage body odor. You may want to suggest they maintain good hygiene, bathe regularly, and use deodorant.
Acne is a major cause of anxiety for teens. Some acne is a normal part of physical development and can be easily treated by topical over-the-counter creams. Sometimes acne should be treated with stronger medicine, which can only be prescribed by a health professional. It is important to treat moderate to severe cases of acne in order to prevent scarring. It’s virtually impossible to have never had a skin breakout — everyone gets them! Just because your teen has acne and appears self-conscious about it doesn’t mean they’ll bring it to your attention or ask to see a doctor about it. Don’t make it a big deal, but consider offering solutions available to help reduce or rid them of it.
Asymmetry and Clumsiness
There’s a reason why it may seem like teens are a bit awkward and less coordinated. You might even notice them tripping or being more clumsy. It has to do with biology. Teens experience growth first in their extremities such as the hands and feet, followed by the arms and legs, and later the torso and shoulders. This unique growth can make teen bodies appear out of proportion.
Teens may also notice that body parts may grow at different times (i.e. one breast or one testicle may be bigger than another). They may feel self-conscious about this. Reassure them that they’ll experience growth in spurts and not uniformly, but that it is likely to even out by the end of their adolescence.
One of the most obvious areas for concern is height. It’s impossible to miss if a young person is smaller or taller than their peers. There is a wide range of heights for all people. There are many things taken into account when assessing how tall a teen will be as an adult. Some factors include how tall their parents are, how quickly or slowly they are growing, nutrition, and a delayed onset of puberty.
Tweens and teens who have a height well below average for their age and gender are referred to as having “short stature”. Most children who have short stature are healthy, but occasionally growth that’s slower than normal can be a sign of a health problem.
On the other hand, some teens may appear to be growing faster than their peers. Again, height depends on many factors. In many cases, tweens and teens who grow taller earlier end up finishing growing before others and become average height in adulthood. If you think your child is growing too fast or that rapid growth is causing any pain or discomfort, talk to your child’s pediatrician or another healthcare professional.
It’s worth noting that typically, girls experience growth spurts about two years earlier than boys. This can lead to self-consciousness among both sexes — girls who feel they are too tall and boys who feel they are too short! Without minimizing feelings, remind them that differences are to be celebrated and in the end, it mostly evens out.
Girls may be concerned about when they will get their first period and what to do if their period is irregular. It’s normal for menstrual cycles to be irregular for up to 1-2 years after first getting one’s period. But ongoing irregularity could be cause for concern. Consider an evaluation if your teen has not received her period by 16 years of age or if menstruation causes severe pain or extreme mood changes. While cramps are common and most can be treated with over-the-counter medicine, seek further care from a health provider for more significant symptoms.
Both weight gain or weight loss can impact the menstrual cycle. Be on the lookout for low body weight, extreme exercising, or gaining significant weight, as any of these can delay or alter period cycles.
Breast Development in Boys (Gynecomastia)
Boys may experience some breast tissue growth (or gynecomastia) during the early stages of puberty. In many cases, this will cause a small, swollen area under the nipple, and often on one side alone. Sometimes, this growth may be much more extensive. Boys with overweight/obesity issues may have the appearance of “pseudo” gynecomastia due to excessive fatty tissue — that is not breast tissue.
Some boys may be embarrassed that they are “becoming a girl” and refuse to take off clothes at the gym or in front of others. Let them know that in most cases, this is a very normal part of teen development and that the chest growth will resolve in 1-2 years. However, also encourage them to see a healthcare professional if they are worried or if it has not resolved itself by late puberty.
Parents Vital Role
Parents can reassure their teens that many of their concerns related to their bodies are normal. We must validate their feelings and normalize what they are going through. At the same time, we mustn’t be afraid to seek professional help. Any concerns related to delayed puberty, slow development, body image issues, acne, painful or irregular periods and more, are common topics healthcare providers are trained to assess and resolve.
The sad truth is that sometimes young people whose bodies are different than others are particularly self-conscious, or might even get teased. In many cases, our children have a similar pattern of development as we had. If that is the case, share your experience and earned wisdom with your teen, especially about how it all evened out. If they remain concerned, help them get factual information from their health professional.
Above all, in this time of rapid and uneven physical and emotional changes, our most important role is to remain steady – unconditionally present and accepting of them, just as they are.