For most adolescent boys and girls, puberty comes on like a runaway train pulling boxcars of raging hormones that create a powerful combination of physical, mental, and emotional challenges. As parents, helping our kids through the changes taking place in their bodies and minds can be daunting, but the more you know about puberty, the better equipped you’ll be to talk about it — and help your kids get through it.
For starters, it’s important to know that during puberty, both girls and boys worry about being “normal.” Many children have a decrease in self-esteem and body satisfaction if they enter puberty earlier than their friends. Others feel embarrassed when it seems like everyone has gone through puberty except them. Reassure your children that the timing of puberty can vary from one person to another and there’s nothing wrong with them if they experience it earlier or later than their peers.
The key here is communication. Talking to your kids about what they’re going through is very important in helping them understand it’s normal. Try not to dramatize the conversation; that can make things more awkward and uncomfortable for the kids.
So let’s discuss the changes that take place during puberty.
Puberty in Girls
Breast growth is usually the first sign of puberty and can happen between the ages of 8 and 16. The fastest growth spurt typically happens when girls are about 12. Girls may develop breast “buds,” or swelling and soreness around the nipples. Their breasts will grow slowly over several years and it’s not unusual for one breast to be larger than the other during this period.
Most girls begin menstruating between the ages of 10 and 16. During a menstrual period, there are typically two to three days of heavier bleeding and two to four days of lighter flow.
A girl may notice cramps in the weeks or days before her period. Cramps are caused by the increased production of hormones during a period, which cause the muscles of the uterus to contract. During her period, a girl may also feel aching in her upper thighs, back pain, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, and fatigue.
Increase in Height and Weight
Girls often gain weight in puberty. Girls’ hips typically grow rounder and wider, while their waists become narrower. This is an excellent time to develop good exercise and eating habits to encourage future health.
Increase in Body Hair
During puberty, girls experience an increase in hair on the arms, legs, armpits, and pubic area.
Because of the surges in hormones during puberty, many girls experience mood swings — especially right before their periods. This is called premenstrual syndrome or PMS, which often causes irritability, difficulty sleeping, fluid retention, anxiety, and dietary cravings.
Puberty in Boys
Typically, the first sign of puberty in boys is testicle growth. This generally happens between the ages of 9 and 13. The skin of the scrotum becomes thinner and the testicles hang lower. The penis also begins to get bigger.
Increase in Height and Weight
During puberty, a boy’s shoulders usually broaden and his body grows taller and more muscular. The fastest growth spurt typically happens around age 14. Many boys experience some pain in their arms and legs as their muscles stretch to keep up with their growing bones.
Increase in Body Hair
Pubic hair develops around the base of the penis and scrotum and in the armpits. Later, hair growth increases on the face, arms, legs, and chest.
Boys’ voices start to become deeper during puberty. At first, the voice may crack, but the cracking phase doesn’t last long.
Sweat and Oil
Boys start to sweat more and notice increased body odor. They often get pimples on their faces, backs, chests, or buttocks because of the changes in sweat and oil glands. Don’t be afraid to talk about how good hygiene can reduce acne.
Boys generally begin producing semen between the ages of 12 and 16. They might have their first ejaculations during sleep in what’s known as a nocturnal emission or a “wet dream.” As boys’ hormones change, they’ll get erections more often. Erections can happen at any time, even when a boy isn’t thinking about sex.
Emotional Changes During Puberty
In addition to physical changes, both girls and boys going through puberty experience big changes in their thoughts and feelings. Hormone shifts bring on strong emotional highs and lows. Girls and boys may look and think like adults one moment, then act like children the next. Some of the emotional changes during puberty include mood swings, self-consciousness, confusion, feelings of uncertainty, and sexual attraction.
Dealing with puberty’s physical and emotional changes can be confusing and embarrassing. That’s why children need plenty of reassurance that their bodies and bodily functions are normal. Parents should explain that the physical and mental changes children experience during puberty are all part of the process of becoming an adult. Parents should also discuss practical matters with their children, such as the use of products to get rid of body odor and acne, the use of training bras, and how girls can best deal with their monthly periods.
It’s equally important for parents to reassure their children you’re always willing to answer any questions they have about puberty. Remember that children’s feelings about their changing bodies may be confusing or overwhelming. Good communication will help children deal with dramatic changes more easily.
Tips for Parents
Help Children Maintain a Healthy Diet
Nutrition affects a child's progression through puberty. Following a healthy diet helps the body grow without becoming overweight. An adolescent also needs more protein, iron, calcium, zinc and folic acid during puberty for healthy growth. Menstruating girls are at an especially high risk of iron deficiency. Failing to get enough calcium or protein during puberty may damage bone and muscle growth, which could affect health later in life.
Ensure a Good Night’s Sleep
Adolescents going through puberty need 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night for proper growth and development. When children are sleep-deprived, they’re more likely to be moody and irritable.
Get Them Moving
Regular physical activity will help improve a child’s mood. During exercise, the body produces chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are also known as the “feel good hormones” because they lift one’s mood.