Puberty is one of the most profound biological and social transitions in the life span. It
begins with subtle changes in brain-neuroendocrine processes, hormone concentrations,
and physical morphological characteristics and culminates in reproductive maturity.
The onset and trajectory of the hormone and physical changes that characterize
puberty are well documented. Puberty as a social construction is a more complicated
concept and entails definitional ambiguity regarding the onset and offset of puberty;
social-role passages into new reference groups; perceptions of body, self, and sexual image;
and expectations for independent and mature behavior (Alsaker, 1995). Puberty as
an integrated biological and social construction has intrigued scholars, artists, parents,
and adolescents alike for centuries, and cultures have ritualized puberty to varying degrees.
The biological changes of puberty are universal, but the timing and social significance
of these changes to adolescents themselves, societies, and scientific inquiry vary
across historical time and cultures. Nonetheless, there is widespread agreement on the
profound biosocial complexity of puberty and its essential role as a period beginning
with reproductive-function awakening and culminating in sexual maturity.
The evolution of puberty occurred in such a way as to maximize the probability for
successful procreation. Puberty-related mutations across generations have favored biological
qualities that foster survival in particular geographic and cultural settings. One
perspective is that individuals have evolved to be sensitive to features of their early childhood
environment (Draper & Harpending, 1982). Therefore, changes in pubertal processes
are considered a response to shifting environmental demands. Shifting environmental
circumstances are conjectured to be a factor in the downward trend in the age
of onset of puberty. This shift reflects secular environmental trends rather than an evolutionary
process. Nonetheless, genes that become expressed as a function of environmental
demands may favor earlier or later timing of puberty in subsequent generations.
In contrast to the evolutionary and physical-developmental adaptive properties of
puberty, the social component of puberty historically was perceived as a major transition
contributing to the turbulence and stress experienced by some adolescents. Adolescence
as a period of storm and stress is an early- to mid-20th century conception of
adolescence (Blos, 1962; Freud, 1958; Hall, 1904) that was viewed as universal and bi-
ological in origin. Contemporary empirical-based findings support the view that storm
and stress are neither a universal phenomenon nor a biologically based aspect of development.
The majority of adolescents enjoy at least some aspects of pubertal development,
principally, increased height. Accordingly, the storm and stress perspective
has been revised to represent a more balanced view of adolescence as a period of development
characterized by biological, cognitive, emotional, and social reorganization with
the aim of adapting to cultural expectations of becoming an adult. This revisionist perspective
suggests that adolescence is a period when specific types of problems are more
likely to arise than in other periods of development (Arnett, 1999) yet that these problems
are not universal. Behavioral reorganization occurs in the service of accommodating
to changing social roles, and it is important to note that adolescents change social
roles, thereby influencing their social environment. It also implies that the majority
of adolescents experience neither maladjustment nor notable undesirable behaviors.