Early Adolescence: Why It's Tough

group of adolescents making faces and being silly

Take an informal poll of one hundred adults about what years of their lives they would never want to repeat, and you will probably hear "junior high" or "middle school" most often. All too frequently, a relatively well-adjusted, good-natured child enters the sixth or seventh grade and two or three years later emerges emotionally (if not physically) battered and bruised. What turns these years into such a war zone?

First, the tides of puberty are likely to be flowing at full speed. Among other things, these generate much concern and self-consciousness about physical changes that are (or aren't yet) under way. Such worries are intensified by the marked variations in development at this age. Within the same class will be skinny thirteen-year-old boys with squeaky voices and hairy hulks who appear qualified for the defensive line of the high school football team. Similarly, flat-chested girls who have yet to experience their first menstrual cycle are mingling with fully developed counterparts who could pass for women several years older. The inevitable comparisons and insecurities can become more acute at the end of gym class if many classmates shower together.

Second, wide mood swings and strong emotional responses to the ups and downs of life are the order of the day. Physical and hormonal components contribute to this stormy weather in both sexes, although the biochemistry of the monthly cycle can accentuate the mood swings in girls.

Like the two-year-old, the young adolescent experiences life in extremes. If she gets a friendly smile from a guy she thinks is cute, everything is coming up roses. If he finishes last in the fifty-yard dash, the whole world stinks. Today two girls declare their undying friendship; tomorrow they announce they hate each other. Last summer he campaigned passionately for a new guitar; today it gathers dust in his room.

Emotional reactions to life's twists and turns, even in a stable home environment, can provoke physical responses as well, especially headaches, abdominal pains and fatigue. While any of these may be caused by the daily strain of growing up, they should be evaluated by a physician if persistent or disruptive. Insomnia, withdrawal from activities that were once enjoyed, irritability and a marked change in appetite could signal full-blown depression, a more significant problem that should be taken seriously and treated appropriately.

In addition to these physical and emotional upheavals among individual adolescents, bringing many of them together (as occurs every school day) creates a social stew containing large doses of these volatile ingredients:

  • An intense need for acceptance by peers.
  • An equally intense concern about looking dumb, clumsy, or at all different from the surrounding herd of other early adolescents — who themselves are intensely concerned about looking dumb, clumsy, or at all different from everyone else.
  • An ongoing struggle with self-confidence or overt feelings of inferiority, even among those who are the most attractive and talented (or tough and hostile).
  • A surprising — and at times shocking — intolerance for anyone who looks or behaves a little unlike everyone else.
  • A limitless capacity for creative (and often obscene) insults, put-downs and jokes directed at nearly everyone — but especially the one who is different. This is particularly and sometimes painfully obvious in group settings. Kids who are quite civilized one-on-one or who pledge their allegiance to virtue and values at their Sunday-night youth group can unleash a torrent of crude slurs during a slumber party or a school-yard basketball game. In some cases, nonstop verbal harassment can escalate to physical confrontations or violence.

Consequently, school represents more than classroom activities and homework for many adolescents. It can be a daily social gauntlet — unpleasant at best, a barbaric ordeal at worst — requiring every ounce of effort and energy just to complete the round-trip back to home base. As a result, if any physical symptom is present when the alarm clock goes off — a headache, a minor cold, too little sleep the night before, some menstrual cramping — you may encounter major resistance when you try to pry your junior higher out of bed.

Adapted from the Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 1999, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

Next in this Series: Understanding Sudden Changes