Clumsy Kids

Clumsy Kids

We've all seen stereotypical teenage nerds tripping over themselves in movies and on sitcoms, but the truth is that most adolescents feel awkward and clumsy at some point in their lives. In this Science Update, you'll hear where some of that klutziness comes from.


The ungainliness of youth. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Today's "Why Is It?" question comes all the way from Bourne, England. Roy Gosling wants to know why young men seem to be so clumsy.

We asked Jeffrey Arnett, a developmental psychologist at the University of Maryland. He says young men and women can get a little klutzy when they hit a growth spurt at puberty.


It begins at about age 10 for girls and about age 12 for boys. And during the growth spurt, not only is growth very rapid, but it's also uneven. So the different parts of the body are growing at different rates; in particular, the arms and the legs grow faster than the rest of the body.

That's why adolescents feel a bit awkward until they adapt to their rapidly changing bodies. What's more, Arnett says the youngster's mental growing pains add to this clumsiness.


They're much more self-conscious than they were as children. And so they might trip over things, or stumble from one place to another, simply because they're more conscious of their own body.

Luckily, the growth spurt only lasts about two years.

If you stumble over a science question, we've got the answer. Call us at 1-800-WHY-ISIT. If we use it on the show, you'll get a free Science Update mug. For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.

Making Sense of the Research

As if you needed further proof, this research more or less confirms that young teenagers are freaks—at least in terms of body proportion. You go along happily through childhood, comfortable with yourself, and next thing you know, you've got these ridiculous gangly limbs. It's amazing that young adolescents don't always fall flat on their faces!

As painful as the transition to puberty is, it's better that it happens this way than the other way around. Suppose your torso got big and hefty before your limbs really got a chance to grow. Can you imagine a 19-year-old linebacker's chest on an 11-year-old's arms and legs? He'd topple over! Since growth is an inexact process, better to get the limbs up and running first and then let the rest of you beef up later.

The infamous "self-conscious" phase of adolescence is also critical for development. It's a sign of mental maturity to be fully aware of yourself and to be able to look at yourself objectively, almost like an outsider. Think of a three-year-old running around with chocolate ice cream running down her chin and covering her shirt. Does she care? No! Because she really doesn't see herself from the outside. A thirteen-year-old girl, on the other hand, would probably dash for the bathroom if even a drip touched her blouse.

This kind of thinking can sometimes get in the way of executing seemingly automatic tasks, like walking. Many successful athletes have noticed that they don't perform as well when they're thinking about what they're doing. The same can be said for a fourteen-year-old running to catch the bus. If you stop to think: "Wow, I look like a dork," it might just interfere with the mechanics of running. Thankfully, in time most of us learn to overcome the neurotic kinds of self-consciousness and move into a mature state of self-awareness, which allows us to make moral judgments, exercise better self-control, and take stock of our lives.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What are two main sources of clumsiness in young adolescents?
  2. What is it about the growth spurt that produces awkwardness?
  3. How can self-consciousness make you clumsy? Can you think of examples in which self-consciousness interfered with your ability to perform something physical?
  4. What are some advantages of becoming self-conscious (or self-aware)?

For Educators

PBS Frontline's Inside the Teenage Brain explores the science behind the mental changes that happen in the teen years.

In the National Geographic News article Adolescence Came Late in Human Evolution, read about the relationship of adolescence to the history of the human species.

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