What is puberty?
Puberty is the time when your child moves through a series of significant, natural and healthy changes. These physical, psychological and emotional changes signal your child is moving from childhood to adolescence.
Puberty starts when changes in your child’s brain cause sex hormones to start being released in the ovaries (girls) and testes (boys).
The timing of puberty and its stages is different for every young person, but includes:
As a guide, puberty usually begins around 10-11 years for girls and around 11-13 years for boys. But it’s normal for the start of puberty to range from 8-13 years in girls and 9-14 years in boys. Every child is different. Genetics, nutrition and social factors all play a role in the onset of puberty.
There’s no way of knowing exactly when your child will start puberty. Early changes in your child’s brain and hormone levels can’t be seen from the outside, so it’s easy to think that puberty hasn’t started.
Puberty can be completed in about 18 months, or it can take up to five years. This variation is also completely normal.
Many people think that adolescence is always a difficult time, and that all teenagers have moods and behave in challenging ways. In fact, some studies show that only about 5-15% of teenagers go through extreme emotional turmoil, become rebellious or have major conflicts with their parents during puberty.
Puberty for girls: what to expect
Here’s a summary of typical body changes linked to puberty in girls.
Around 10-11 years
- Breasts will start developing. This is the first visible sign that puberty is starting. It’s normal for the left and right breasts to grow at different speeds. It’s also common for the breasts to be a bit tender as they develop.
- Your daughter will have a growth spurt, and she’ll get taller. Some parts of her body – such as head, face and hands – might grow faster than her limbs and trunk. This might leave her looking out of proportion for a while. The average total height increase for girls is 5-20 cm. Girls usually stop growing at around 16-17 years.
- Your daughter’s body shape will change. For example, her hips will widen.
- Pubic hair will start to grow. It will get darker and thicker over time.
Around 12-14 years (about two years after breast development starts)
- Hair will start growing under your child’s arms.
- Some girls might start to get a clear or whitish discharge from their vagina before their period. If your daughter reports any itching, pain or a bad or strong odour, check with a doctor.
Periods (menstruation) will start. This is when the lining of the uterus (womb), including blood, is shed every month. Your daughter might get pain before and during her period, such as headaches or stomach cramps. These are normal. Periods might be irregular at first.
Puberty for boys: what to expect
Here’s a summary of typical body changes linked to puberty in boys.
Around 11-13 years
- The testes (testicles) and penis will start growing. It’s normal for one testis to grow faster than the other.
- Pubic hair will start growing. It will get darker and thicker over time.
Around 12-14 years
Your son will have a growth spurt and get taller. Some parts of his body – such as head, face and hands – might grow faster than his limbs and trunk. This might leave him looking out of proportion for a while. The average total height increase for boys is 10-30 cm. Boys usually stop growing at around 18-20 years.
Around 13-15 years
Hair will start growing on other parts of your son’s body – under his arms, on his face and on the rest of his body. His leg and arm hair will thicken. Some young men will grow more body hair into their early 20s.
Around 13-14 years
- Your son will start producing testosterone, which stimulates the testes to produce sperm.
- Your son will start getting erections and ejaculating (releasing sperm). During this period, erections often happen for no reason at all. Ejaculation during sleep is often called a ‘wet dream’.
Around 14-15 years
The larynx (‘Adam’s apple’ or voice box) will become more obvious. Your son’s larynx will get larger and his voice will ‘break’, eventually becoming deeper. Some boys’ voices move from high to low and back again, even in one sentence. This will stop in time.
Coping with the body changes: some tips
- Talk to your daughter about bras. Some girls will ask to wear a bra before they really need one. They might want to be like friends who are wearing bras. A soft crop-top or sports bra can be a good compromise.
- Suggest your daughter uses a panty liner if she has a clear or whitish discharge from her vagina and she’s bothered by it.
- Prepare your daughter for her first period by having an emergency kit of sanitary pads or tampons and clean underpants – perhaps discreetly packed in a pencil case – for her to carry in her school bag. Some girls can be anxious that their first period will arrive suddenly and be embarrassing. Reassure her that the first period is usually very light. An emergency kit will also be helpful while her period is irregular.
- Have some therapy on hand for period pain. A hot water bottle can be helpful. For some girls, physical activity can help too. Medication, such as ibruprofen, can also be effective. Severe, regular pain might be helped by prescription medication – talk to your doctor about this.
- If your son’s testes are developing unevenly, you can reassure him that men’s testes are usually not the same size. One often hangs lower than the other.
- If your son is getting unexpected erections, you can reassure him that people usually don’t notice. The erection will disappear quickly.
- Boys have breasts too. If your son develops breast tenderness or even growth, you can let him know this is normal. About 80% of boys find that their breasts are sore and start to grow, either on one or both sides. It’s understandable if your son is embarrassed or worried by this. But you can tell him that it usually becomes less noticeable around the middle-teen years, when boys’ chests become broader.
- Wet dreams (ejaculating while asleep) can start during puberty, and you can reassure your son that this is normal.
The information above is a guide only. Everybody’s different, and there is a big range in what is considered normal. Always talk to your health professional if you’re concerned about your child’s development.
Discussing puberty with your child
It’s not always easy to talk to children about their bodies. But it’s especially important to have a series of open and relaxed conversations before pubertal development starts. This will help children feel OK when their bodies start to change.
Using the right words when you’re talking about body parts is important too. This helps to make it clear that talking about your body is just a normal part of life – it doesn’t need special or secret words.
You can also use a three-step process to kick-start a discussion about puberty:
- Find out what your child knows. For example, you could ask, ‘Do they talk about puberty and physical body changes in health class at school? What do they say?’
- Give your child the facts and correct any misinformation. For example, ‘Everyone goes through these changes, but not always at the same pace’.
- Use the conversation as an opportunity to talk about your values. For example, ‘People often start masturbating at puberty. I think it’s a normal way for teenagers to handle their sexual feelings’.
Sometimes, you can start a conversation by picking up on a scene in a movie or TV show, a book that you’ve both read, or a comment on the radio as you’re driving in the car.
It’s a good idea to have the big conversations when your child is ready to listen. During puberty, children can swing between having lots of energy and being very tired. This is normal, but it does mean that your child might not always be open to ‘important’ talks.
Your child might not want to share everything with you, so try not to force communication when your child doesn’t want to talk. Even when relationships with parents are untroubled, young people appreciate being able to discuss concerns confidentially. Your child might be interested in talking to the school counsellor or a GP.
Helping your child during puberty
You can reinforce that the feelings and challenges your child is experiencing are normal for children at this age. Reassure your child that puberty is an important and exciting life stage – it means adulthood is getting closer. Try to avoid talking about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ times for things to occur.
In puberty children are adjusting to their changing bodies, so your child might feel self-conscious or embarrassed at times. As they develop, children will also begin to compare their bodies with those of friends and peers. It can be helpful to reinforce that people’s bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and to avoid comparing your child’s body to anyone else’s. Act as a role model by showing your child that you’re comfortable with your own body size. You can also model healthy eating and physical activity.
Some teenagers might have feelings of shame or guilt about masturbation or simply want more ‘alone time’. Masturbation is a normal, healthy form of self-discovery. Ensure your child has some privacy and a private space, and always knock before entering your child’s room.
Children who go through early or late puberty need extra support. Boys and girls who experience physical changes very early might be less prepared emotionally or get confused or worried by the changes. Early or late physical changes might cause your child to be embarrassed.
Use every opportunity to reinforce that people come in all shapes and sizes, and that your child’s body is perfect just the way it is.
Puberty and children with special needs
Children with special needs are likely to go through puberty in the same way as other children.
Some children might have delayed physical development because of chronic health problems, which might cause a delay in the onset of puberty. How your child manages puberty emotionally might also be affected by special needs. A health professional can answer any questions you might have about this.
Physical changes during puberty make personal hygiene especially important. If your child has a caregiver or another grown-up who is involved in caring for your child, it might help to discuss your child’s physical changes with that person. Grown-ups should always ask permission to touch any private parts.