University of Missouri Extension

GH6010, New June 2002

Early Adolescence

Lynn Blinn Pike
Human Development and Family Studies Extension

Have you ever felt like these parents? Look at the cartoon and think about these questions. Have you ever felt like these parents? How do the parents in the cartoon feel? The adolescent? What is this really saying about adolescents in our society?

All parents experience a defining moment when their loving, sweet, affectionate child appears to have become a moody, bundle of raging hormones overnight. Parents who are prepared for these changes are more likely to relax and recognize that the child has moved into early adolescence.

While this transition is different for every child, early adolescence is usually defined as the period between 10 and 15 years of age. Early adolescence is the time between childhood and adolescence, while adolescence is the time between childhood and adulthood.

With one foot in childhood and the other in adolescence, the early adolescent faces a set of changes that can be scary and confusing. In no other period of an individual's life, except in infancy, are there so many changes in such a short period of time. Changes take place in the early adolescent's physical size and strength, thinking and reasoning, feelings and emotions, and relationships with family and friends. When parents understand why early adolescents behave the way they do, they can more easily relax and keep a sense of humor during this critical time of transition for their child.


While girls begin to mature approximately a year earlier than boys, both experience two related types of physical change in early adolescence: a major growth spurt and sexual development. For girls, the growth spurt typically starts at 10 years of age, peaks at 11 and is complete by 15. For boys, the growth spurt typically starts at 11, peaks at 13 and is complete by 15. Although not often noticed or discussed, early adolescents even experience changes in the sizes and functions of their eyes! In terms of sexual maturation, early adolescents develop what are called secondary sex characteristics. For girls, these include menstruation, breast development and body hair. For boys, these include development of testes, changes in vocal cord size resulting in a deepening of the voice, and body hair.

While there are some very easily recognized stages in early adolescence, each individual follows a unique path to adult physical maturity. Some are referred to as early developers and some as late developers. Being early or late can be stressful for adolescents when compared to the timing of the development of their friends. Adults need to remind early adolescents that by 16 or 17 years of age, the differences in development due to timing will have leveled off.


As individuals move from childhood through adolescence they move from concrete to abstract thinkers. Concrete thinkers see issues as only "yes" or "no" or "black" and "white." They become frustrated when given problems or moral dilemmas with multiple solutions or no single correct answer. Abstract thinkers can see multiple ways of addressing a problem, enjoy considering "what-if" questions, and can imagine outcomes in the future.


Early adolescents experience intense and unstable feelings. At least in part because of changes in hormones, they bounce from being silly, happy and exuberant to withdrawn, grouchy and sad. They feel embarrassed very easily and are overly concerned with how they look. They are most concerned about weight, skin, height and overall body shape.

Adults assume that early adolescents feel positive when they are alone in their rooms listening to music or simply daydreaming. However, when researchers have asked adolescents to describe their feelings when they are alone, the results show that they feel sad, overwhelmed, depressed and lonely. They may be alone but they are replaying many of the events of the day in their minds and being critical about how they acted and what they said. They may be reviewing over and over again what they said to the cute boy or girl who sits next to them in class. Or they may be trying to determine why a friend said a particular sentence or phrase to them. The more they worry about these events, the more depressed they become. They have not developed the thick skin that allows adults to dismiss trivial and less meaningful events in their lives.


The topics above (growing, thinking, and feeling) are all involved in how early adolescents feel about themselves and the kinds of relationships they have with the people around them. Relationships with friends become extremely important to the early adolescent because friends provide a sounding board for receiving support from others who are experiencing the same life stage. Friends are listened to for advice about parents, clothes, activities, music and boyfriends or girlfriends. Friendships may be developed through involvement in schools, communities or church activities. Sports may serve as a way to meet and gain respect from friends.

Early adolescents often feel nervous and anxious about their newly found interest in the opposite gender and prefer to hang out in groups. While early adolescents may assert their independence in their choices of friends, clothes, music, etc., they still need to feel that their parents are loving, supportive and available to talk to. One mother wrote:

"My 12-year-old son is in a stage of contradictions. He says: ‘take me to the mall but don't let any of my friends see you drop me off'…‘I really want to go on the family trip but I will miss my friends a lot'…‘I need hugs from my mom and dad but only when no one else is around'."

Research has shown that adolescents' greatest fear is losing their parents. When early adolescents were asked to write about how they feel about their mothers, the results showed that:

The following quotes show the complex but positive feelings these ninth-grade adolescents had for their mothers.

Adolescent growing, thinking, feeling and relating Look at the cartoon and think about how it shows the adolescent growing, thinking, feeling and relating.

Tips for parents

Even when it seems to become more difficult to raise an early adolescent — when arguments increase about clothes, friends, music, etc. — parents need to remember a few simple facts.

Judy Ford wrote a book on how to love your teenager, even when it seems impossible. She divided her book into three themes: serenity, spirit and security. In the chapter on serenity she recommends:

In the chapter on spirit she recommends:

In the chapter on security she recommends:


GH6010 Early Adolescence | University of Missouri Extension

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