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Why is it important to understand physical development and brain functioning when working as an adolescent mental-health therapist?

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Adolescence is the period of development in which children experience the most drastic changes to their physical bodies and hormonal makeup. It is heralded by puberty, the period during which, among other things, adolescents begin to develop secondary sex characteristics, such as body hair, deepening of the voice for males,...

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Adolescence is the period of development in which children experience the most drastic changes to their physical bodies and hormonal makeup. It is heralded by puberty, the period during which, among other things, adolescents begin to develop secondary sex characteristics, such as body hair, deepening of the voice for males, and the rounding out of the breasts and hips in females. In boys, by age 14 the pituitary gland is fully developed, and it will release hormones that stimulate the testes to increase the output of testosterone. In girls, the pituitary gland is also fully developed. Follicle stimulating hormone, produced in the adenohypophysis, travels down the body and stimulates the formation of the ovaries, the release of estrogen, and the beginning of menstruation.

It is important for mental-health therapists to understand this basic biology so that they may be better prepared to explain the physiology behind changes in body structure to their adolescent patients. Furthermore, testosterone in men and estrogen in women also target certain structures in the brain related to emotion. It is important for experts to be aware of what kinds of effects heightened concentrations of these hormones can have in teens, especially as they may contribute to exacerbated mental-health issues.

However, psychologists have known for a while that biology alone does not automatically lead to problems in adolescent mental health, intimations of substance abuse, or suicidal tendencies. In 1992, Christy Buchanan argued that serious mental health crises only occur in young adults for whom hormone-mediated emotional states have been activated by external, sociocultural factors. Mood and behavior are dictated by more than mere physiology. The well-prepared and educated mental-health professional will understand the complex interplay between bodily hormonal changes and environmental stimuli when assessing adolescent mental health.

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