CHANGES OBSERVABLE DURING PUBERTY AND ADOLESCENCE IN GIRLS.
1. Changes in the Bodily Framework.—During this period the girl's skeleton not only grows remarkably in size, but is also the subject of well-marked alterations and development. Among the most evident changes are those which occur in the shape and inclination of the pelvis. During the years of childhood the female pelvis has a general resemblance to that of the male, but with the advent of puberty the vertical portion of the hip bones becomes expanded and altered in shape, it becomes more curved, and its inner surface looks less directly forward and more towards its fellow bone of the other side. The brim of the pelvis, which in the child is more or less heart-shaped, becomes a wide oval, and consequently the pelvic girdle gains considerably in width. The heads of the thigh bones not only actually, in consequence of growth, but also relatively, in consequence of change of shape in the pelvis, become more widely separated from each other than they are in childhood, and hence the gait and the manner of running alters greatly in the adult woman. At the same time the angle made by the junction of the spinal column with the back of the pelvis, known as the sacro-vertebral angle, becomes better marked, and this also contributes to the development of the characteristic female type. No doubt the female type of pelvis can be recognised in childhood, and even before birth, but the differences of male and female pelves before puberty are so slight that it requires the eye of an expert to distinguish them. The very remarkable differences that are found between the adult male and the adult female pelvis begin to appear with puberty and develop rapidly, so that no one could mistake the pelvis of a properly developed girl of sixteen or eighteen years of age for that of a boy. These differences are due in part to the action of the muscles and ligaments on the growing bones, in part to the weight of the body from above and the reaction of the ground from beneath, but they are also largely due to the growth and development of the internal organs peculiar to the woman. All these organs exist in the normal infant at birth, but they are relatively insignificant, and it is not until the great developmental changes peculiar to puberty occur that they begin to exercise their influence on the shape of the bones. This is proved by the fact that in those rare cases in which the internal organs of generation are absent, or fail to develop, there is a corresponding failure in the pelvis to alter into the normal adult shape. The muscles of the growing girl partake in the rapid growth and development of her bony framework. Sometimes the muscles outgrow the bones, causing a peculiar lankiness and slackness of figure, and in other girls the growth of the bones appears to be too rapid for the muscles, to which fact a certain class of "growing pain" has been attributed.
Another part of the body that develops rapidly during these momentous years is the bust. The breasts become large, and not only add to the beauty of the girl's person, but also manifestly prepare by increase of their glandular elements for the maternal function of suckling infants.
Of less importance so far as structure is concerned, but of great importance to female loveliness and attractiveness, are the changes that occur in the clearing and brightening of the complexion, the luxuriant growth, glossiness, and improved colour of the hair, and the beauty of the eyes, which during the years which succeed puberty acquire a new and singularly attractive expression.
The young girl's hands and feet do not grow in proportion with her legs and arms, and appear to be more beautifully shaped when contrasted with the more fully developed limb.
With regard to the internal organs, the most important are those of the pelvis. The uterus, or womb, destined to form a safe nest for the protection of the child until it is sufficiently developed to maintain an independent existence, increases greatly in all its dimensions and undergoes certain changes in shape; and the ovaries, which are intended to furnish the ovules, or eggs (the female contribution towards future human beings), also develop both in size and in structure.
Owing to rapid growth and to the want of stability of the young girl's tissues, the years immediately succeeding puberty are not only those of rapid physiological change, but they are those during which irreparable damage may be done unless those who have the care of young girls understand what these dangers are, how they are produced, and how they may be averted.
With regard to the bony skeleton, lateral curvature of the spine is, in mild manifestation, very frequent, and is too common even in the higher degrees. The chief causes of this deformity are:
(1) The natural softness and want of stability in the rapidly growing bones and muscles;
(2) The rapid development of the bust, which throws a constantly increasing burden on these weakened muscles and bones; and
(3) The general lassitude noticeable amongst girls at this time which makes them yield to the temptation to stand on one leg, to cross one leg over the other, and to write or read leaning on one elbow and bending over the table, whereas they ought to be sitting upright. Unless constant vigilance is exerted, deformity is pretty sure to occur—a deformity which always has a bad influence over the girl's health and strength, and which, in those cases where it is complicated by the pathological softness of bones found in cases of rickets, may cause serious alteration in shape and interfere with the functions of the pelvis in later life.
2. Changes in the Mental Nature.—These are at least as remarkable as the changes in the bodily framework. There is a slight diminution in the power of memorising, but the faculties of attention, of reasoning, and of imagination, develop rapidly. Probably the power of appreciation of the beautiful appears about this time, a faculty which is usually dormant during childhood. More especially is this true with regard to the beauty of landscape; the child seldom enjoys a landscape as such, although isolated beauties, such as that of flowers, may sometimes be appreciated.
As might be anticipated, all things are changing with the child during these momentous years: its outlook on life, its appreciation of other people and of itself, alter greatly and continuously. The wonderfully rapid growth and alterations in structure of the generative organs have their counterpart in the mental and moral spheres; there are new sensations which are scarcely recognised and are certainly not understood by the subject: vague feelings of unrest, ill-comprehended desires, and an intense self-consciousness take the place of the unconscious egoism of childhood.
The processes of Nature as witnessed in the season of spring have their counterpart in the changes that occur during the early years of adolescence. The earth warmed by the more direct rays of the sun and softened by recurring showers is transformed in a few weeks from its bare and dry winter garb into the wonderful beauty of spring. This yearly miracle fails to impress us as it should do because we have witnessed it every year of our lives, and so, too, the great transformation from child to budding woman fails to make its appeal to our understanding and sympathy because it is of so common occurrence. If it were possible for adults to really remember their own feelings and aspirations in adolescent years, or if it were possible for us with enlightened sympathy to gain access to the enchanted garden of youth, we should be more adequate guides for the boys and girls around us. As it is we entirely fail to appreciate the heights of their ambitions, hopes, and joys, and we have no measure with which to plumb the depths of their fears, their disappointments, and their doubts. The transition between radiant joy and confident hope in the future to a miserable misinterpretation of sensations both physical and psychical are rapid. It is the unknown that is terrible to us all, and to the child the changes in its body, the changes in its soul and spirit, which we pass by as commonplace, are full of suggestions of abnormality, of disaster, and of death. Young people suffer much from the want of comprehension and intelligent sympathy of their elders, much also from their own ignorance and too fervid imagination. The instability of the bodily tissues and the variability of their functions find a counterpart in the instability of the mental and moral natures and in the variability of their phenomena. Adolescents indeed "never continue in one stay;" left to themselves they will begin many pursuits, but persevere with, and finish, nothing.
Youth is the time for rapidly-succeeding friends, lovers, and heroes. The schoolfellow or teacher who is adored to-day may become the object of indifference or even of dislike to-morrow. Ideas as to the calling or profession to be adopted change rapidly, and opinions upon religion, politics, &c., vary from day to day. It is little wonder that there is a special type of adolescent insanity differing entirely from that of later years, one in which, owing to the want of full development of mental faculties, there are no systematised delusions, but a rapid change from depression and melancholy to exaltation bordering on mania. Those parents and guardians who know something of the peculiar physical and mental conditions of adolescence will be best prepared both to treat the troubles wisely, and by sympathy to help the young people under their care to help themselves.
One of the phenomena of adolescence is the dawn of the sexual instinct. This frequently develops without the child knowing or understanding what it means. More especially is this true of young girls whose home life has been completely sheltered, and who have not had the advantage, or disadvantage, of that experience of life which comes early to those who live in crowded tenements or amongst the outspoken people of the countryside. The children of the poorer classes have, in a way, too little to learn: they are brought up from babyhood in the midst of all domestic concerns, and the love affairs of their elders are intimately known to them, therefore quite early in adolescence "ilka lassie has her laddie," and although the attraction be short-lived and the affection very superficial, yet it is sufficient to give an added interest to life, and generally leads to an increased care in dress and an increased desire to make the most of whatever good looks the girl may possess. The girl in richer homes is probably much more bewildered by her unwonted sensations and by the attraction she begins to feel towards the society of the opposite sex.
Probably in these days, when there is more intermingling of the sexes, the girl's outlook is franker, and, so far as this is concerned, healthier, than it was forty or fifty years ago. It is very amusing to elders to hear a boy scarcely in his teens talking of "his best girl," or to see the little lass wearing the colour or ornament that her chosen lad admires. It is true that the "best girl" varies from week to week if not from day to day, but this special regard for a member of the opposite sex announces the dawn of a simple sentiment that will, a few years later, blossom out into the real passion which may fix a life's destiny.
The mental and moral changes that occur during the early years of adolescence call for help and sympathy of an even higher order than do the changes in physical structure and function. Some of these changes, such as shyness and reticence, may be the cause of considerable suffering to the girl and a perplexity to her elders, but on the whole they are comparatively easy of comprehension, and are more likely to elicit sympathy and kindness than blame. It is far otherwise with such changes as unseemly laughter, rough manners, and a nameless difference in the girl's manner when in the presence of the other sex. A girl who is usually quiet, modest, and sensible in her behaviour may suddenly become boisterous and self-asserting, there is a great deal of giggling, and altogether a disagreeable transformation which too frequently involves the girl in trouble with her mother or other guardian, and is very frequently harshly judged by the child herself. In proportion as self-discipline has been taught and self-control acquired, these outward manifestations are less marked, but in the case of the great majority of girls there are, at any rate, impulses having their origin in the yet immature and misunderstood sex impulse which cause the young woman herself annoyance and worry although she is as far from understanding their origin as her elders may be. The remedies for these troubles are various. First in order of time and in importance comes a habit of self-control and self-discipline that ought to be coeval with conscious life. Fathers and mothers are themselves to blame if their girl lapses from good behaviour when they have not inculcated ideals of obedience, duty, and self-discipline from babyhood. It seems such a little thing to let the child have its run of the cake-basket and the sweet-box; it is in the eyes of many parents so unimportant whether the little one goes to bed at the appointed time or ten minutes later; they argue that it can make no difference to her welfare in life or to her eternal destiny whether her obedience is prompt and cheerful or grudging and imperfect. One might as well argue that the proper planting of a seed, its regular watering, and the influences of sun and wind make no difference to the life of a tree. We have to bear carefully in mind that those who sow an act reap a habit, who sow a habit reap a character, who sow a character reap a destiny both in this world and in that which is eternal. It is mere selfishness, unconscious, no doubt, but none the less fatal, when parents to suit their own convenience omit to inculcate obedience, self-restraint, habits of order and unselfishness in their children. Youth is the time when the soul is apt to be shaken by sorrow's power and when stormy passions rage. The tiny rill starting from the mountainside can be readily deflected east or west, but the majestic river hastening to the sea is beyond all such arbitrary directions. So it is with the human being: the character and habit are directed easily in infancy, with difficulty during childhood, but they are well-nigh impossible of direction by the time adolescence is established. Those fathers and mothers who desire to have happiness and peace in connection with their adolescent boys and girls must take the trouble to direct them aright during the plastic years of infancy and childhood. All natural instincts implanted in us by Him who knew what was in the heart of man are in themselves right and good, but the exercise of these instincts may be entirely wrong in time or in degree. The sexual instinct, the affinity of boy to girl, the love of adult man and woman, are right and holy when exercised aright, and it is the result of "spoiling" when these good and noble instincts are wrongly exercised. All who love their country, all who love their fellow men, and all who desire that the kingdom of God should come, must surely do everything that is in their power to awaken the fathers and mothers of the land to a sense of their heavy responsibility and of their high privilege. In this we are entirely separated from and higher than the rest of the animal creation, in that on us lies the duty not only of calling into life a new generation of human beings, but also the still higher duty, the still greater privilege and the wider responsibility of bringing up those children to be themselves the worthy parents of the future, the supporters of their country's dignity, and joyful citizens of the household of God.
Another characteristic of adolescence is to be found in gregariousness, or what has been sometimes called the gang spirit. Boys, and to almost as great a degree girls, form themselves into companies or gangs, which frequently possess a high degree of organisation. They elaborate special languages, they have their own form of shorthand, their passwords, their rites and ceremonies. The gang has its elected leader, its officers, its members; and although it is liable to sudden disruption and seldom outlasts a few terms of school-life, each succeeding club or company is for the time being of paramount importance in the estimation of its members. The gang spirit may at times cause trouble and lead to anxiety, but if rightly directed it may be turned to good account. It is the germ of the future capacity to organise men and women into corporate life—the very method by which much public and national work is readily accomplished, but which is impossible to accomplish by individual effort.
3. Changes in the Religion of the Adolescent.—The religion of the adolescent is apt to be marked by fervour and earnest conviction, the phenomenon of "conversion" almost constantly occurring during adolescence. The girl looks upon eternal truths from a completely new standpoint, or at any rate with eyes that have been purged and illuminated by the throes of conversion. From a period of great anxiety and doubt she emerges to a time of intense love and devotion, to an eager desire to prove herself worthy, and to offer a sacrifice of the best powers she possesses. Unfortunately for peace of mind, the happy epoch succeeding conversion not unfrequently ends in a dismal time of intellectual doubt and spiritual darkness. Just as the embryonic love of the youthful adolescent leads to a time when the opposite sex is rather an object of dislike than of attraction, so the fervour of early conversion is apt to lead to a time of desolation; but just as the incomplete sex love of early adolescence finds its antitype and fine flower in the later fully developed love of honourable man and woman, so does the too rapturous and uncalculating religious devotion of these early years revive after the period of doubt, transfigured and glorified into the religious conviction and devotion which makes the strength, the joy, and the guiding principle of adult life.
Much depends on the circumstances and people surrounding the adolescent. Her unbounded capacity for hero-worship leads in many instances to a conscious or unconscious copying of parent, guardian, or teacher; and although the ideals of the young are apt to far outpace those of the adult whose days of illusion are over, yet they are probably formed on the same type. One sees this illustrated by generations in the same family holding much the same religious or political opinions and showing the same aptitude for certain professions, games, and pursuits. Much there is in heredity, but probably there is still more in environment.