Puberty 101 for Parents — At a Glance
- Children need basic facts about puberty.
- Body changes are the most obvious signs of puberty.
- It’s important to talk about the emotional and sexual changes during puberty, too.
Puberty can be a challenging time for children and their parents. Many of us wish we had a “Puberty 101” course to help us through this time. Families who know what to expect and who talk about puberty together will find this time easier.
Whether you have a child entering puberty or you’re just curious about puberty, you may have many questions. Here are some of the most common questions we hear parents ask when they want to talk with their kids about puberty. We hope you find the answers helpful.
What Is Puberty?
Puberty is the time between childhood and adulthood when girls and boys mature physically and sexually. It is the period when a girl is becoming a woman and a boy is becoming a man. Puberty is marked by changes such as breast development and menstruation in girls and facial hair growth and ejaculation in boys.
Puberty is also the start of adolescence, which is a longer period of emotional change.
When Should I Start Talking with my Child About Puberty?
There’s no magic age at which to have “the talk” about puberty. In fact, it is a good idea to have many talks. Try to talk with your child before any signs of puberty develop so that they don’t come as surprises. If your child knows what to expect ahead of time, the changes that come with puberty will be easier to deal with.
Some parents wait until their child asks questions. If your child is shy, or doesn’t ask questions, you may have to take the lead. And if changes happen before you get to talk, your child may become confused or frightened.
When Does Puberty Happen?
Puberty happens to everybody, but it doesn’t happen to everybody at the same time. Generally, girls start puberty earlier than boys. The bodies of some girls begin changing at age eight. Others don’t start changing until they are 14. Boys’ bodies start changing between ages 10 and 12. Most often these changes are complete before a person is 16, but puberty can go on throughout the teens.
What Changes Can Girls and Boys Expect During Puberty?
In many ways, puberty is similar for girls and boys.
During puberty, both girls and boys:
- grow taller quickly
- develop pubic, underarm, and body hair
- may sweat more and notice more body odor
- often get pimples on their faces, backs, chests, or buttocks because of changes in sweat and oil glands
- see their body shapes change — wider hips for girls and broader shoulders for boys
- find that their voices become deeper — this usually happens much more suddenly for boys
- develop more sexual feelings
Girls and boys often worry about being normal as they go through puberty. Some children begin puberty months or years earlier than their friends and classmates. Others begin much later. We should reassure our children that even if they go through puberty at a different time or a different rate than their friends, it’s perfectly normal.
As girls and boys go through puberty, they also begin to go through big changes in their thoughts and feelings. Their emotional changes will continue through adolescence until they reach adulthood. During this time, peers become more and more important in our children’s lives. They may spend lots of time trying to be like their friends and classmates. They may also spend a lot of energy exploring how they are unique and independent.
Hormones cause the physical changes we call puberty. They also affect children’s feelings. Hormone shifts may give children strong emotional highs and lows. We can help our children deal with their shifting moods by being patient and by validating their feelings. Remember that their feelings are real and may be confusing or overwhelming to them. Good family communication can help girls and boys deal with all of their changes more easily.
At some point, most girls and boys begin masturbating as they explore their changing bodies. Children usually begin masturbating long before puberty, but it becomes much more sexual during adolescence. It’s important for children to learn that masturbating is normal, and will not harm their bodies or minds.
In early puberty, girls and boys also become curious about the bodies of their peers — both same-sex and other sex. It is common for them to look at each other’s sex organs. It is less common for them to touch each other’s sex organs, but this is normal, too. When children engage in this kind of normal touching, they usually don't do it frequently.
What Happens to Girls During Puberty?
Breast growth is usually the first sign of puberty for girls. Girls may develop breast “buds,” or swelling and soreness around the nipples. This usually happens between the ages of eight and 13. Pubic hair may develop shortly before or, more usually, after breast growth begins. The fastest growth spurt happens when girls are about 12.
Breasts will grow slowly over several years. One breast may be larger than the other. This is not unusual. Parents can reassure girls that their breasts may not be as different from one another when they are older.
Most girls begin menstruating between the ages of 10 and 16. The time of a girl’s first period is called “menarche.” A girl may notice cramps in the weeks or days before her first period. She may also notice that she has more vaginal discharge in the weeks before her period starts. Some girls don’t get any early signs.
Girls need to be prepared for their periods before they happen. Family members can teach girls how to use sanitary pads, tampons, or menstrual cups.
Pads are usually easiest for girls to use at first, and it’s a good idea to get some pads and look at them together. Girls may have questions about
- which kind of pad to buy
- how to put a pad in their underwear
- how long to wear a pad before changing it
- how to throw out used pads
Girls can carry a pad in their purse or backpack if they’re concerned about their period starting unexpectedly.
We can also help girls become more comfortable with their periods by helping them learn about the menstrual cycle.
As girls sexually mature, their vaginas start lubricating when they are aroused. They also start having erotic dreams, and sexual thoughts and feelings. Girls should know that this is perfectly healthy and normal.
What Happens to Boys During Puberty?
At first, boys will probably notice their testicles growing larger or some pubic hair appearing. These early signs of puberty generally happen between the ages of nine and 13.
Later, a boy will begin to notice his penis growing larger. He’ll then have his fastest growth spurt when he’s about 14. Body hair will appear on his underarms, face, or chest. Some boys’ breasts will become larger and more feminine for a while. This is called gynecomastia.
As boys’ hormones change, they will get erections more often. It’s common for erections to happen at any time, even when a boy is not thinking about sex. These are called spontaneous erections. Boys may worry about having them in public. We can let them know that these erections will only last a few minutes. We can also let him know that a well-placed jacket or book bag can prevent others from noticing.
Boys generally begin producing semen between the ages of 12 and 16. They might have their first ejaculations while masturbating or during a “wet dream” — ejaculation during sleep. Wet dreams are also called nocturnal emissions.
It’s important to tell boys about wet dreams before they happen. Otherwise, they may be surprised and upset if they don't know what wet dreams are and that they're normal.
What Are Children’s Biggest Concerns During Puberty?
Children going through puberty need lots of reassurance that they and their bodies are normal. We need to help them understand that every person is different from every other person and that being different is normal.
During puberty, children need most of all to know that their bodies and body functions are normal. Girls and boys need help in developing healthy feelings about their bodies. They need to know that breasts, penises, nipples, labia (lips of the vulva), testicles, and clitorises come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors and that they are all normal. They need to know that menstruation, sexual thoughts and feelings, wet dreams, orgasms during sleep, and masturbation are normal, too.
Should Boys Learn About Girls? Should Girls Learn About Boys?
Absolutely. Understanding what’s happening to both sexes helps satisfy children’s healthy curiosity, reassures them that everyone goes through puberty, and builds respect and understanding about the other sex. Learning about puberty in both sexes also helps children understand how reproduction happens.
Is It Okay to Talk with My Child About Puberty If We’re Not the Same Sex?
Yes. This is a great way to show our children that it's normal for adults to be knowledgeable about the bodies of both women and men.
Children may ask different questions of different people in their lives. And different opportunities for discussion may arise when children are with different people. If you are in a relationship, your child may ask your partner one thing and you another. If you are a single parent, your child may talk to you about most things, but also ask questions of another trusted adult. If your child has older siblings or other family members, your child may talk to them about their questions, too. Ultimately, our children benefit from learning different points of view, and from the closeness formed by talking openly about sexual health issues.
When Does Puberty End?
Puberty is usually complete before the age of 16. During the rest of their adolescence, teens’ thoughts and feelings about themselves and their relationship to other people will continue to change dramatically. They may look and think like adults one moment and like children the next. It helps to remember that the brain keeps developing until kids are in their 20s.
Puberty is exciting and challenging. We can help provide information and support for our children so they don’t feel quite so alone as they go through it.