Your daughter is asking about getting her first bra, and your son comes home from soccer practice smelling like he's been digging on a road crew all day. What's going on?
Welcome to puberty, the time when kids sprout up, fill out, and maybe even mouth off.
Puberty was awkward enough when you were the one going through it. So how can you help your child through all the changes?
Stages of Puberty
Sure, most of us know the telltale signs of puberty — hair growth in new places, menstruation, body odor, lower voice in boys, breast growth in girls, etc. But we may not fully comprehend the science behind all of these changes. Here's a quick look at how it works.
Usually after a girl's 8th birthday or after a boy turns 9 or 10, puberty begins when an area of the brain called the hypothalamus starts to release gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). When GnRH travels to the pituitary gland (a small gland under the brain that produces hormones that control other glands throughout the body), it releases two more puberty hormones — luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).
What happens next depends on gender:
- Boys: Hormones travel through the bloodstream to the testes (testicles) and give the signal to begin production of sperm and the hormone testosterone.
- Girls: Hormones go to the ovaries (the two oval-shaped organs that lie to the right and left of the uterus) and trigger the maturation and release of eggs and the production of the hormone estrogen, which matures a female's body and prepares her for pregnancy.
At about the same time, the adrenal glands of both boys and girls begin to produce a group of hormones called adrenal androgens. These hormones stimulate the growth of pubic and underarm hair in both sexes.
For a Boy
The physical changes of puberty for a boy usually start with enlargement of the testicles and sprouting of pubic hair, followed by a growth spurt between ages 10 and 16 — on average 1 to 2 years later than when girls start. His arms, legs, hands, and feet also grow faster than the rest of his body. His body shape will begin to change as his shoulders broaden and he gains weight and muscle.
A boy may become concerned if he notices tenderness or swelling under his nipples. This temporary development of breast tissue is called gynecomastia and it happens to about 50% of boys during puberty. But it usually disappears within 6 months or so.
And that first crack in the voice is a sign that his voice is changing and will become deeper.
Dark, coarse, curly hair will also sprout just above his penis and on his scrotum, and later under his arms and in the beard area. His penis and testes will get larger, and erections, which a boy begins experiencing as an infant, will become more frequent. Ejaculation — the release of sperm-containing semen — will also occur.
Many boys become concerned about their penis size. A boy may need reassurance, particularly if he tends to be a later developer and he compares himself with boys who are further along in puberty. If a boy is circumcised, he may also have questions about the skin that covers the tip of an uncircumcised penis.
For a Girl
Puberty generally starts earlier for girls, some time between 8 and 13 years of age. For most girls, the first evidence of puberty is breast development, but it can be the growth of pubic hair. As her breasts start to grow, a girl will initially have small, firm, tender lumps (called buds) under one or both nipples; the breast tissue will get larger and become less firm in texture over the next year or two. Dark, coarse, curly hair will appear on her labia (the folds of skin surrounding the vagina), and later, similar hair will begin growing under her arms.
The first signs of puberty are followed 1 or 2 years later by a noticeable growth spurt. Her body will begin to build up fat, particularly in the breasts and around her hips and thighs, as she takes on the contours of a woman. Her arms, legs, hands, and feet will also get bigger.
The culminating event will be the arrival of menarche, her first period (menstruation). Depending on the age at which they begin their pubertal development, girls may get their first period between the ages of 9 and 16.
Common Puberty Concerns
The physical changes kids experience as they move toward adulthood often are accompanied by emotional consequences.
Some girls are excited about their budding breasts and new training bras; others may worry that all eyes are focused on their breasts. Some boys love the sight of themselves all lathered up with shaving cream; others may be uncomfortable with the attention they get for a few new shoots of hair.
Pimples are common for most teens. Acne is caused by glands in the skin that produce a natural oil called sebum. Puberty hormones make the glands produce extra sebum, which can clog the pores. Washing gently with water and mild soap can get rid of excess sebum and help reduce breakouts.
Over-the-counter and prescription medications are available for more severe cases of acne. Your family doctor can recommend a dermatologist (a doctor who specializes in treating the skin) if basic skin care and OTC medications don't keep acne under control.
Kids who once associated bath time with play need to learn to wash regularly and to apply deodorant or antiperspirant. A teen who's learning to shave will need to learn how to keep a razor clean, to throw a disposable one away before it becomes dull and ineffective, and to not share it with others.
Boys, capable of having erections since infancy, can now experience ejaculation. Usually, this first happens between the ages of 11 and 15, either spontaneously in connection with sexual fantasies, during masturbation, or as a nocturnal emission (also called a wet dream). If he doesn't know about wet dreams before he has one, a boy may think he has urinated accidentally or that something has gone wrong with his body.
As kids mature physically and emotionally, they become increasingly curious about their sexuality and their own bodies. Although infants and young kids do touch their own genitals from time to time because they like the way it feels, masturbation is more common in older kids, from the preadolescent and teen years and beyond.
As far as the myths and beliefs about masturbation: No, it won't cause kids to grow hair on their hands, become infertile, go blind, or develop new emotional problems. A small number of kids and teens with already existing emotional problems may become preoccupied with masturbation — just as they may become overly occupied with other behaviors or thoughts. Constant or obsessive masturbation may be a sign of anxiety or other emotional problem.
But, other than that, masturbation is generally considered by doctors to be a common form of normal sexual self-exploration. Although some preteens and teens may choose to masturbate, others may not.
Because masturbation is often considered a private topic, many kids might feel too embarrassed to talk about it because they're concerned that their parents will be angry or disappointed with them. Some kids may prefer to talk to older siblings, friends, or their doctors rather than a parent. If you are concerned or have questions about masturbation, consult your doctor.
Talking to Kids About Puberty
Boys and girls can see these changes happening to each other — in some cases, they can smell them. It's important to talk to your child about how bodies change — sooner, rather than later.
Be prepared to talk to a girl about the expected events of puberty, including menstruation, when you see the first signs of breast development, or earlier if she seems ready or has questions. A boy should know about normal penile development, erections, and nocturnal emissions before age 12 — sooner, if he's an early developer. And it's also important to talk to your child about what's happening to members of the opposite sex.
It's best not to have "The Talk" as one grand summit but rather as a series of talks, ideally beginning when your child is young and starting to ask questions about body parts. Each time you talk, offer more and more detail, depending upon your child's maturity level and interest in the topic.
And, if your child has a question, answer it honestly. If you feel uncomfortable, need answers to questions, or are uncertain about how to have these talks with your child, ask your doctor for advice.Back to Articles
A Parent's Guide to Surviving the Teen Years
You've lived through 2 AM feedings, toddler temper tantrums, and the back-to-school blues. So why is the word "teenager" causing you so much anxiety?Read More
Feeling Too Tall or Too Short
How do you like your height? Check out this article if you feel too tall or too short.Read More
Five Things Girls Want to Know About Periods
Girls have lots of questions about periods. Here are five good ones - and the all-important answers!Read More
Girls and Puberty
Girls have lots of questions about puberty and growing up. Find all the answers here!Read More
Growth and Your 6- to 12-Year-Old
As kids grow from grade-schoolers to preteens, there continues to be a wide range of "normal" as far as height, weight, and shape.Read More
Is My Penis Normal?
Just about every guy wonders about the size of his penis at one time or another.Read More
Talking to Your Child About Periods
Kids reaching puberty should already know what's going to happen to their bodies. Here are some tips for talking to your daughter about menstruation.Read More
Your Child's Changing Voice
Yesterday, your son sounded like he's always sounded - like a boy. But today, you heard that first crack in his voice. It's the larynx (or voice box) that's causing all that noise.Read More
Changes become more dramatic and complex with the onset of puberty, and kids are likely to have lots of questions. These articles can help you become a trusted source of information, comfort, and support for your kids.Read More
Understanding Early Sexual Development
Young kids develop an emotional and physical foundation for sexuality in many subtle ways as they grow. By understanding how your kids grow and learn, you can play an important role in fostering their emotional and physical health.Read More
I'm Growing Up - But Am I Normal?
When you're growing up, lots of changes happen and everyone wonders: Am I normal?Read More
Concerned about your growth or development? Puberty can be delayed for several reasons. Luckily, doctors usually can help teens with delayed puberty to develop more normally.Read More
Talking to Your Daughter About Puberty
Help your daughter prepare for the changes that puberty will bring before she takes her first steps toward adulthood.Read More
Talking to Your Child About Puberty
Talking to kids about puberty is an important job for parents, especially because kids often hear about sex and relationships from unreliable sources. Here are some tips.Read More
Boys and Puberty
On the way to becoming a man, a boy's body will go through a lot of changes, including your body growing bigger, your voice changing, and hair sprouting everywhere. Find out more.Read More
Precocious puberty - the onset of signs of puberty before age 7 or 8 in girls and age 9 for boys - can be physically and emotionally difficult for children and can sometimes be the sign of an underlying health problem.Read More
Female Reproductive System
Why do girls get periods? What goes on when a woman gets pregnant? What can go wrong with the female reproductive system? Find the answers to these questions and more in this article for teens.Read More
Help! Is This My Body?
Your body's changing - and if you've ever felt out of step with it, you're not alone. Find out how to deal with body changes and feelings in this article.Read More
Your Changing Voice
Both boys and girls experience voice changes as they grow older, but it's the boys that will notice the biggest difference. Find out more in this article for kids.Read More
All About Puberty
Voice cracking? Clothes don't fit? Puberty can be a confusing time, but learning about it doesn't have to be. Read all about it in this article for kids.Read More
Male Reproductive System
Understanding the male reproductive system, what it does, and problems that can affect it can help you better understand your son's reproductive health.Read More
Male Reproductive System
What makes up a guy's reproductive system and how does it develop? Can anything go wrong? Find the answers to these questions and more in this article.Read More
All About Periods
Getting a period is a natural part of becoming a woman. Find out more in this article for kids.Read More
Everything You Wanted to Know About Puberty
Voice cracking? Clothes don't fit? Puberty can be a confusing time, but learning about it doesn't have to be. Read all about it.Read More
When Will I Start Developing?
Lots of girls and guys worry about when their bodies will develop. The fact is that physical development starts at different times and moves along at different rates in normal kids.Read More
Female Reproductive System
Learning about the female reproductive system, what it does, and the problems that can affect it can help you better understand your daughter's reproductive health.Read More
Breasts and Bras
Girls grow breasts as they develop and mature. And once a girl has breasts, she probably will want to wear a bra. Find out more in this article just for kids.Read More
Growth and Your 13- to 18-Year-Old
Kids entering puberty will undergo many changes in their developing bodies. Find out more about what to expect.Read More