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Mental Health
Behavior and Development
Know how and when to talk with your child about puberty.
InteliHealth Medical Content
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Puberty is that time in a child's life when the body goes through changes to become an adult. It is important (and in the long run comforting for a child) if parents talk with their child about puberty before these changes begin. If a child is not prepared for these physical changes, he may be frightened by them and may wonder if something is wrong with his body. Children need to know what to expect and also that these changes are perfectly normal.

Puberty usually starts earlier in girls than in boys — between the ages of 8 and 13 for girls and between the ages of 9 and 14 for boys. With each child developing at his own rate, the actual age for an individual child varies, depending on many factors, including sex, family history and ethnic background. Because of the wide range of ages for starting puberty, parents need to remind children that it is normal, and that they are normal, whether they start puberty early or late. This can be difficult for some children to understand when their friends are not experiencing these same changes at the same time. No one wants to look different!

Parents should talk with their child about puberty (or at least mention it) before the age of 8 or 9. Even if they are not beginning to show signs, some of their friends may be starting puberty. Schools often invite parents and students for talks about puberty in the fourth or fifth grade. These talks provide general information and are meant to help you have more personal discussions with your child at home.

During puberty, which typically lasts for four or five years, natural substances in the body called hormones cause the physical and emotional changes. A summary of these changes is presented below. Be sure to talk with your child about the changes that occur to both boys and girls. Parents often find it helpful to give their child books about puberty that he can read in private. Your local library or bookstore likely has several different titles available.

A few children start puberty either very early or very late. Although this is usually not due to any medical problem, be sure to mention it to your child's doctor if a girl is showing any signs of puberty before age 8 or a boy is showing any signs before age 9. Likewise, check with your child's doctor if there are no signs of puberty at all in a girl by age 13 or a boy by age 14.

Physical changes for girls

For most girls, the first sign of puberty is breast growth, which starts with a small round lump (breast bud) under one or both nipples. The lump may be tender and will gradually grow, along with the dark area around the nipples (areola). As the breasts grow, it is common for one side to be larger than the other, though they usually even out before reaching their final size and shape.

During puberty, the whole body changes shape and size. Girls gain weight and grow taller, although at first, the arms, legs, hands and feet may grow faster than the rest of the body, making them feel somewhat awkward or clumsy. The storage of body fat changes, too so that the hips, buttocks and legs get larger while the waist seems to get smaller. Hair grows in the pubic area, on the legs and under the arms. Glands in the skin make more oil and sweat, so body odor and acne can be noticed. In girls, the peak growth period (in height, weight, fat and muscle) occurs about one year after puberty has begun.

Usually about two years after the start of breast development, most girls will begin to have periods (menstruate). On average, in the United States, girls get their first period (menarche) around age 12 and a half; however, the age varies and could be as early as 9 to 10 years or as late as 17 years old. Many girls have a clear or white discharge from their vagina for up to a year before they get their first period. A girl's first few menstrual periods tend to be irregular, until the ovaries mature and start to produce eggs regularly.

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Physical changes for boys

On average, boys enter puberty about one year later than girls. The first sign of puberty in a boy is usually that the testicles and scrotum (sac that holds the testicles) get bigger. Then the penis starts to grow, at first longer and then wider. The scrotum also gets darker, or redder, and more wrinkled.

During puberty, a boy's whole body also changes shape and size. Boys gain a lot of weight and develop muscles. Their shoulders get wider and they grow taller, although at first, the arms, legs, hands and feet may grow faster than the rest of the body, making them feel somewhat awkward or clumsy. Hair grows under the arms, on the legs and face, and in the pubic area. Hair also grows on the chest for some, but not all boys. Glands in the skin make more oil and sweat, so body odor and acne can be noticed. For boys, the peak growth period (in height, weight, fat and muscle) occurs about two years after puberty has begun.

As boys go through puberty and the voice box (larynx) gets bigger, their voice begins to change, eventually sounding lower or deeper than it was during childhood. This may start with squeaking or cracking of the voice, which can be embarrassing for some boys.

The increase in hormone levels during puberty causes boys to have more frequent erections (the penis gets straight, bigger and hard as it fills with blood), which is telling the body to start making sperm. Once sperm production has started, then semen, which is made up of sperm and fluids, may be released through the penis (ejaculation) during an erection. Boys sometimes ejaculate while they are sleeping. This so-called wet dream, or nocturnal (at night) emission, is perfectly normal and usually goes away as a boy gets older. Many doctors use the age at which boys ejaculate for the first time (usually about one year after the increase in size of the testicles) as the sign that a boy has hit puberty (similar to menarche for a girl).

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Emotional changes

In addition to these physical changes, puberty brings with it many emotional changes. Your child is developing intense friendships, especially with members of the same sex, he cares deeply about what other people think, and he wants to be liked and accepted by his friends. Your child now may want to spend more time with friends and less time with family. This can be a difficult time of adjustment for parents, who are used to being the center of their child’s life. Since this an important step toward maturity, parents should try to respect their child's growing need for independence and privacy.

Many pre-teens feel anxious or self-conscious about the physical changes of puberty, especially when comparing themselves with others. It is important for parents to reassure their child that while he and his friends will grow at different rates, they will eventually catch up with one another. Resist any urge to tease your child about the changes associated with puberty, even if the teasing seems harmless or good-natured, because it may cause embarrassment and damage self-esteem in the long run.

During puberty, many parents also notice their child's moods change quickly and often. One minute your child may say you’re the greatest parent ever, and the next, you're the worst. One day your child may insist that he be allowed to make his own decisions and the next day, he is begging for your help. Although it can be frustrating, parents need to know that these mood swings are normal and are probably related to changes in hormone levels in the body. Do your best to support, encourage and guide your child though this new and different, but exciting and important time.

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Last updated July 31, 2014

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