Unique Issues in Physical Development
Although the major physical development milestones of adolescence happen to everyone, the timing of these milestones varies a lot, both between and within the sexes.
Some adolescents exhibit physical signs of maturity sooner than their peers, and others exhibit them later. For example, the visible physical changes in males often begin a couple of years after they begin in females. The timing of a female’s first period also varies: girls can start their period as early as 8 and as late as 16.
These differences can be hard for adolescents: they may feel self-conscious, or worry that they don’t fit in if they don’t look like others their age. These variations also can lead to other people treating adolescents in a way that does not match their cognitive or emotional development. For instance, females who develop visible curves or males whose voices change during middle school may be treated more like older teenagers by both their peers and adults, even if they do not have the cognitive or emotional maturity of older teenagers. In contrast, adolescents who exhibit physical changes later than their peers may be treated like younger children, even though they are more mature cognitively and emotionally. Some research suggests that youth who experience faster physical development are more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior than their peers and that teens who develop more slowly than their peers may be more likely to face bullying.
Many factors can be responsible for differences in the timing and results of adolescents’ physical changes, such as:
- Genes. A person’s genetic makeup can affect the timing of puberty and what the changes look like.
- Diet/nutrition and exercise before and during adolescence. Overweight females, for example, are more likely to have their first period and experience breast development at younger ages than their peers.
- Chronic illnesses. Conditions such as cystic fibrosis, asthma, diabetes, or bowel problems also can contribute to delays in growth and puberty because of nutrient deficiencies, toxin excess, and/or medication side effects.
- Substance use. Smoking or using other drugs can harm adolescents’ growth and development. Smoking can stunt lung growth and make it harder to grow strong bones.1
- Development in other areas. Variations in cognitive, emotional, social, and/or moral development also can influence and be influenced by physical changes in adolescence. For instance, those who look different than their peers (e.g., being overweight or underweight) are at a higher risk of being bullied by peers.
Additional information on adolescent physical development can be found in The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development, produced by the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Content last reviewed on July 2, 2019