Unhappiness at Puberty

The “three A’s of happiness,” acceptance, affection, and achievement, discusses on this article, are often violated during the puberty years. Hence it is questionable whether any pubescent child is or can be really happy or even partially satisfied with life under such conditions.

The first essential of happiness is acceptance, both self-acceptance and social acceptance. To be satisfied with their lives to the point that they can consider themselves happy, pubescents must not only like and accept themselves but must also feel that they are accepted by others. The more they can like and accept themselves, the happier they will be. Similarly, the more people there are whom they want to like and accept them, the more satisfied they are with their status in the social group.

It is difficult for pubescent children to be self-acceptant when they are anxious and concerned about their changing bodies and dissatisfied with their appearance. Furthermore, the realization of the increasingly important role that appearance plays in social acceptance adds to their worries. The more concerned pubescent children are about social acceptance, the more concerned they will be about their appearance, the more concerned they will be about their appearance. Girls tend to worry more about their looks than boys because they realize that appearance plays a more important role in their social appearance than it does in boys.

Studies of pubescent children who are dissatisfied with their looks have pinpointed the areas of greatest concern. Girls, for example, want to have a good figure. Boys want to be tall, since they associate this with masculinity, and very tall girls want to be shorter to conform to the stereotype for their sex. Boys want to be heavier than they are, and girls want to be lighter. Boys want broader shoulders and thicker arms and legs, while girls want smaller hips and waists, thinner arms and legs, and larger busts. Boys are usually dissatisfied with their chins – they want more prominent ones – while girls and boys wish their noses were less prominent and better shaped. As Calden et al. have pointed out, “Female desire changes from the waist down and wish from smallness and petiteness of body parts (except for bust). Males are dissatisfied with body dimensions from the waist up, desiring bigness of body parts”.

Concern about the role of appearance in social acceptance is not the only cause of unhappiness during puberty. The behavior of most pubescents is so unusual that parents, teachers, siblings, and peers – the most significant people in their lives – may be rejectant in their attitudes toward them. Even worse, their temper outbursts and restlessness create the impression that they are not acting their ages – an impression that further jeopardizes their social acceptance and, consequently, their self-acceptance.

The second essential of happiness is affection from others. Because affection from and acceptance by others go hand in hand, pubescents whose attitudes toward family members and friends are critical and derogatory, and whose behavior in social situations is egocentric and unsocial, do not receive the affection they formerly did. While they may try to create the impression that they do not care, or that the affection of others means little to them, this is not the case. Pubescents crave affection, just as children do, and often they want more affection than they formerly did because they are unhappy and dissatisfied with themselves and with life in general.

The third essential of happiness, achievement, likewise is at such a low level at this age that it makes little or no contribution to the pubescent child’s happiness. As was stressed earlier in discussing hazards during the puberty years, underachievement is common. This is partly the result of the disinclination to work caused by lowered physical resistance and strength and partly because of girl’s acceptance of the traditional sex-role stereotype of female achievement below that of males.

When their achievements fall short of their potentials, most pubescents realize it and feel guilty and ashamed. When, for example, their school grades take a plunge, as they often do during the puberty years, pubescents are aware of the fact that they can do and have done better work than they are now doing. If parents and teachers criticize and reprimand them for their lack of achievements, this adds to the feelings of guilt they experience and affects detrimentally their happiness.

Variations in Unhappiness at Puberty

Not all phases of puberty are unhappy to the same degree. The early part, the so-called “negative phase,” is usually the most unhappy. After sexual maturing occurs and growth slows down, pubescent children have more energy. This results in better achievements and better social relationships – thus making possible better social acceptance and greater affection from others.

Furthermore, pubescents are less concerned about their appearance as puberty progresses because they realize that many of the conditions that worried them were only temporary. As they more closely approximate their self-ideals in appearance and in personality, and as they become more sex-appropriate in appearance, some of their anxieties wane. Even more important, they learn that there are ways in which they can improve their appearance – girls may try dieting or they may experiment with different hairstyles, for example – and thus increase their chances for social acceptance and, with it, affection from others.

Seriousness of Unhappiness at Puberty

Because puberty is a short period in the total life span, being unhappy at this time may seem relatively unimportant. This, however, is not the case. There are two reasons for this. First, a pattern of unhappiness established at this time may be reinforced to the point where it will become habitual and persist long after puberty has ended. Second, conditions that contribute to unhappiness at puberty are likely to be persistent unless remedial steps are taken to change them. For example, unless children are encouraged to develop a more realistic ideal self-concept, they will continue to be self-rejectant year after year as they see how far below their ideal they are and what little progress they are making in reaching this ideal.

Because unhappiness at any age is serious, especially if it persists long enough to become habitual, it is important to keep the unhappiness of pubescent children at a minimum. Parents and teachers can do this by making sure that pubescents are as healthy as possible, by telling them what they want and need to know about the maturing process so that they will not imagine that there is something seriously wrong with them if they deviate in any way from their peers, by helping them to improve their appearance, by lightening the work load during periods of rapid growth, by overlooking drops in the quality of their work at such times, by encouraging them to aspire realistically so that they will not be disappointed in their achievements, and by accepting their moodiness and orneriness as only as temporary condition.

Children usually look forward to the time when they will be grown up, and this attitude can be maintained if steps are taken to prevent unhappiness from developing during puberty. This is important for the pubescent child’s mental health, but even more important, it increases the child’s motivation to learn adult patterns of behavior.

The development tasks of adolescence are difficult, and learning them is a long, laborious task best. A strong motivation to do so, resulting from happy anticipation of achieving adult status in society, will go a long way toward easing the burden of these tasks and toward guaranteeing a successful end result.