Kids' emotional, physical maturation don't grow at same rate
By Ken Potts
A 14-year-old I know stood in line at a custom bowling supply store. About 6'2" and 180 lbs., already with a man's voice and beard, he certainly didn't look his age. It was hardly surprising when the clerk -- another young man -- asked casually, "where did you go to high school?"
Looking both a bit proud and a bit chagrined, the first youth admitted that he was but a lowly high school freshman. "Oh," was the clerk's somewhat startled response. "You look like somebody I graduated with a couple of years ago."
I've known this 14-year-old long enough to have observed similar responses. He was mistaken for a college freshman even in eighth grade. And because he tends to be rather quiet and somewhat sober, he can often pull off such a charade, at least until people get to know him. For the fact is that once someone gets past the opening exchange of any conversation with him, they realize that he is, in most other ways, a pretty normal 14-year-old boy -- albeit a rather large one.
Over the years, as both a counselor and a parent, I've known kids who matured physically much more quickly than they matured cognitively, emotionally, socially, or spiritually. Though we often look on it as an advantage -- especially if we are invested in athletics -- it often can be as much a disadvantage as an advantage.
For both boys and girls, such early physical maturation puts a good deal of pressure on them to stop being children. We are tempted to expect from them levels of intellectual focus and processing, physical coordination and skill, emotional insight and stability, social finesse, and spiritual maturity that seem appropriate to their physical presentation.
However, all too often, since their nonphysical maturation is more age appropriate, our expectations don't really match who these kids really are. We wind up pushing them to be older than they are and wind up disappointed and frustrated when they don't measure up.
For girls there is yet another danger. Part of physical development includes sexual development. In a culture in which sexuality is so tied to physical presentation, we often assume that the development of more mature physical sexual characteristics also indicates development of the more mature cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual characteristics important to healthy sexuality.
The fact is, though, that the 13-year-old girl who looks like the relatively mature 23-year-old woman is nothing of the sort.
Since in our culture we look to males, for the most part, to initiate sexual relations, all too often such physical precocious girls wind up in situations in which they are being approached by older teens and men as though they are capable of mature sexual relationships, when they are anything but.
A good deal of psychological damage can be done to these girls in such situations. (We need to also note that a very few men -- men whom I would classify as mentally ill -- prey on such girls, trying to take advantage of their overall immaturity.)
Whether we are talking about boys or girls, all this is especially challenging for parents. For one thing, it is often hard for us to reconcile what seems to be the young adults standing in front of us with the children we remember holding in our laps a few years ago.
And we can likewise have trouble when we come across the disparity between the near adult bodies we see and the children they still are deep down inside.
As difficult as it may be, though, it is still our job as parents to sit down with our physically precocious children and talk to them about this very disparity, and what it means for them -- both the advantages and the disadvantages.
They will likely not welcome this conversation. For one thing, no children their age like such talks. And they likely think they really are more cognitively, emotionally, socially, and spiritually mature than they are, based on what they see in the mirror each morning.
For that matter, they have also probably gotten a good bit of social mileage out of being more physically mature than most of their contemporaries. Nonetheless, we parents need to converse with our children about these issues, and more than once. If we are lucky, they might actually come to us to talk once we let them know we know what's going on.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaracare Counseling with offices in Naperville, Downers Grove, Geneva, and throughout the North Shore. His book "Mix, Don't Blend: A Guide to Dating, Engagement, and Remarriage with Children" is available online.