Emergence of Sexuality and Gender-Related Behavior During Adolescence

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By Sarah Stevenson, The Tini Yogini

The adolescent stage is marked with dramatic changes brought on by puberty that affect each individual’s body and mind. This developmental period begins at around ages 10 to 12 years old and lasts until the young adult ages 18 to 22 (Santrock, 2016). Social-emotional learning begins to occur, and adolescents begin to see the world through a different lens than children. Neurological, hormonal, and physical changes in the child help shape their identities and develop personality traits that will carry them throughout their lives.

School counselors have a responsibility to aid adolescents through this highly emotional time in their lives. An issue like bullying, relationship break-ups, loneliness, depression, and identity crisis can arise during this stage. Counselors must know the current research available regarding this age group to best serve the population they are working with (Hodges, 2019). There is considerable research to help explain the changes that are occurring for the adolescent.

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Identity Development in Adolescence

Identity in adolescence involves a defining sense of self and personality traits that give the teen a sense of unique individualism while also giving them a sense of belonging with others similar to them. According to the American Psychological Association (n.d.), “Identity involves a sense of continuity or the feeling that one is the same person today that one was yesterday or last year (despite physical or other changes).” The development of an adolescent’s identity will likely carry on through adulthood.

Adolescents are in Erikson’s Identity vs. Role Confusion stage of development (Erikson, 1968). They are trying out many versions of themself to see what feels right. A young person’s identity is influenced by friends, role models outside the immediate family, and particular stressors and reinforcements in the environment. Today’s youth are in a time like no other and face an enormous amount of feedback to integrate into their identity from growing up in this digital age.

A research study was recently published in Cyberpsychology (Noon, 2020) that looked at the effect social media has on 2020 adolescents’ identity. The research points to an expeditious speed in which adolescents integrate copious amounts of feedback from Instagram and Facebook accounts into their identity. Youth are receiving literal thumbs up to validate a picture that allows them to test out an identity. Researchers used the three-factor model of identity development: commitment, in-depth exploration, and reconsideration of commitment (Crocetti et al., 2008) to determine if adolescents “Compared and despaired” or “Compare and Explored” while looking at famous Instagram influencers’ posts. They found that when the adolescents compared themselves to the influencer, they were more likely to “reflect upon their abilities in identity-relevant domains, thus evoking further in-depth exploration, and supporting young people in solidifying their identity commitments” (Noon, 2020, p. 9). Further research must continue analyzing the effect that social media has on adolescents growing up in the digital era.

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Neurological Changes Related to Emerging Sexual Characteristics

Many neurological changes are taking place in adolescence due to the maturing of the brain. According to research, the brain develops in a “bottom-up to top-down sequence” (Zelazo, 2013). Sensory-touch, sound, taste, smell, and sight-seeking reinforcement are at the forefront of the brain. The higher functioning of the prefrontal lobe, such as self-control, planning, and logical analysis, comes later in development. Therefore, risk-taking and impulsivity behaviors exist in adolescents. The brain’s emotional parts are developed (limbic system-amygdala), but the part of the brain that regulates emotion is not. Adolescents are craving all forms of sensory stimulation and do not have the brain capacity to balance this. With the estradiol and testosterone streaming through the bloodstream of each adolescent sexual encounters begin to rise.

Researchers (Moreau et al., 2019) studied school-aged children’s negative feelings in response to the first sexual experience. Researchers found that girls from low-affluent families reported the most negative feelings towards early sexual experience. Research has found that early sexual exposure is linked to risk-taking behavior that can also lead to alcohol and drug use (Pokhrel et al., 2018; Prendergast et al., 2019). The adverse effects of poor impulsive choices that adolescents make can have a lasting impact on their entire lives. For this reason, counselors must aim to properly educate the children under their care, offering proper sex education in school. Teach children more about the risk-taking side of adolescents and the adverse effects on their future.

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Hormonal Changes During This Stage

As children start to mature into adolescence, endocrine glands release hormones into the bloodstream, and dramatic changes occur. Testosterone is increasing in boys, and estrogen is rising in girls, which causes the children to develop functioning sexual organs. Not all boys and girls develop at the same pace, which can cause problems for highly emotional adolescent. When a girl matures too early or too late, research points to an adverse effect (Copeland et al., 2019; Skoog et al., 2016).

In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (Copeland et al., 2019), researchers found that girls who developed later in adolescents showed increased levels of depression. In another study, researchers found that girls who develop too early suffer from sexual harassment at an early age, leading to an increase in depression (Skoog et al., 2016). Teens are continually comparing themselves to others at this stage, leading to debilitating emotions like anxiety and depression if they do not look like everyone else. Adults must pay close attention to these late and early bloomers to ensure they have the support they need to make it through this vulnerable time.

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Physical Changes During This Stage

According to Stanford Children’s Health (n.d.), adolescents go through physical and sexual changes. Boys’ testicles enlarge, and a year after, the penis begins to widen. Pubic hair starts to grow around 13 ½ years. Hair grows on the face and underarms, the voice gets deeper, and acne appears at around age 15. Girls develop breasts, hips begin to widen as girls tend to gain more weight than their boy counterparts, and pubic hair grows and hair under the arms. Most girls start a menstrual cycle between the ages of 10 and 16 years. This timing of this physical development affects both boys and girls and causes both insecurities and pride.

In a recent study conducted by Hoyt et al. (2020), researchers looked at the effect of boys’ and girls’ physical development on psychological and physical well-being. They found that early physical maturation “put both girls and boys at risk for several poor psychosocial, behavioral, and health outcomes, while late timing was mostly protective.” Early physical maturing girls reported more depression, health issues, and higher BMI than late maturing girls. Late maturing girls reported better health, less drug use, fewer sexual partners, less weight gain during adolescents, and more physical activity. Early maturing boys reported more drug use, sexual partners, less sleep, higher BMI, and more antisocial behavior. Late maturing boys reported less drug use and weight gain but higher levels of depression. Boys and girls are similar in some ways but different in others.

Counselors can help during this period of vulnerability for young people. Education must be geared toward informing adolescents that physical development does not coincide with each person. Counselors need to look out for later developers to keep them safe from depression that rises in association with bullying.

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Social and Ethnic Factors That Influence the Expression of Gender Characteristics at This Stage

There are psychosocial and biological factors that influence an adolescent into expressing themself with specific gender characteristics. As social-emotional development begins to happen, adolescents become very aware of those around them and whether they receive approval. In 2016 researchers used a mixed-method systematic review to study factors that shape gender attitudes in early adolescence across the globe (Kågesten et al., 2016). They collected 82 scholarly, peer-reviewed studies from 29 countries. They found that family, peers, school, and media all have a heavy influence on the expression of gender characteristics.

Some children are raised in a stereotypical way where parent expectation is that boys are supposed to be masculine, and girls are supposed to be feminine. Parents paint a boy’s room blue and give him trucks to play with and a girl’s room pink and give her dolls. Although adolescents are starting to become more independent of their parents, they still may be affected by the parents’ stereotypical influences (Mesman & Groeneveld, 2018). If the adolescent boy finds that he is attracted to the same sex, he may deny his feelings to seek the parent’s approval.

Adolescents are affected psychosocially by peer approval and peer pressure (Powazny & Kauffeld, 2021). As children begin to develop in a social-emotional way, friends become a significant influence. They begin to form cliques (a group of friends that hold common interests and characteristics). For example, if a boy is exceptionally good at sports, his circle of friends is likely to be his teammates. Even if the adolescent boy does not internally have the stereotypical masculine traits, he is more likely to imitate those traits to fit in with friends. Peers at this age can also affect adolescents in a social or antisocial way. Going along with the crowd is expected because they seek others’ approval (Ahmed et al., 2020; Santrock, 2016).

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In some ethnic cultures, adolescents are celebrated for imitating others in their ethnicity. Fitting in means living peacefully with the collective ethnic group they were born into and going along with ethnic expectations. Adamczyk & Laio (2019) researched LBGTQ related issues across the United States and multiple nations. The research found that economic development, democracy, and religion all affect the LBGTQ individuals’ acceptance. Poorer countries are focused on basic survival and heavily fixated on traditional family values and fitting in with the “norm”. Democratic countries tend to believe in personal expression, freedom, and rights, whereas communist or conservative countries depend on more religious values that do not accept same-sex relationships. Ethnic identity can positively affect adolescents, especially if they are part of a minority group and have issues with others discriminating against them (Society for Research in Child Development, 2017).

Schools can also affect how adolescents express gender characteristics—shaping the child by approving or disapproving of certain behaviors. Teachers and counselors can step in and help students by positively reinforcing prosocial behavior, teaching coping strategies when dealing with stress, and forming supportive bonds with students. When counselors and teachers positively impact students, it can benefit adolescents for their entire lives (Bengoechea, Lorenzino & Gray, 2019).

Alexei, the Gay Russian Adolescent Boy That Lives in the United States

Alexei Patrov is a Russian 14-year boy who lives in Santa Monica, California. When Alexei was thirteen, he and his Russian parents traveled to the United States to live, where his father was transferred to work as a computer analyst. Alexei’s mother and father hold very traditional values that coincide with their traditional upbringing. Alexei’s father and mother believe that men marry women, women stay home, raise the children, and men go to work to provide for the family. According to Mr. and Mrs. Patrov, an LBGTQ lifestyle is unacceptable. The Patrov’s have raised Alexei with obvious masculinity markers, controlling the toys he plays with, movies he watches, and books he reads. When Alexei began high school, his parents eased up on the intricate control they imposed on Alexei because of the massive changes in response to moving to a new country.

Alexei is in the 9th grade and attends a public school in Santa Monica, California. He has a very eclectic group of friends that look up to him for being unique and exotic since he was born in Russia. The acceptance and attention he receives from his friends have helped Alexei smoothly acclimate to an American lifestyle with little to no anxiety. Alexei is sexually attracted to his friend John and has his first sexual experience with this boy. However, he struggles with the exciting feeling of an intimate connection with John while having severe anxiety about not being accepted by his parents. Alexei secretly drinks alcohol every night when he gets home from school to cope with the conflicting feelings.

Counselors have a big responsibility to help adolescents’ through this highly emotional time marked with physical, hormonal, and neurological changes. Young people like Alexi that are first-year LBGTQ high school students from a foreign country, may need more help than most. Adolescents must be taught positive coping strategies and functional communication to properly deal with the anxiety and depression they face at this stage of development. Counselors must also keep an eye out for bullying brought on by being a foreigner in a new country. There is no way to keep adolescents from the stresses that are associated with growing up. However, counselors can teach positive ways to deal with stressors.


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By The Tini Yogini

I hold a Masters degree in psychology with an emphasis in behavior modification & have worked with individuals in the public & private sector for 20 years. I am a certified Yoga Instructor RYT & sole proprietor of my own health and wellness business for the last 14 years built from the ground up. I implement Cognitive Behavior Therapy theories to help clients eliminate self-destructive unconscious behavior patterns and replace them with positive life affirming behavior patterns. I am also a professional writer and have spent the last 10 years writing articles about implementing research-based behavior strategies to positively enhance one’s life. I teach workshops throughout the United States that teach individuals how to flourish and thrive.

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