The Ins and Outs of Puberty
Happy New Year! Last year was a bit of a roller coaster for some of us, and while we can’t predict what will happen in 2018, we’re excited for this new start!
While we’re on the topic of new starts, we wanted to take a moment to focus on puberty. We were all teenagers once and some of us may be parenting them now (if you are, go you!), so we thought it may be necessary to start the year with a chat about what to expect during this time of transition.
What is Puberty?
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 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, it releases two more puberty hormones — luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).
What happens next depends on sex: for boys, these hormones travel through the bloodstream to the testes and give the signal to begin production of sperm and testosterone; for girls, these hormones go to the ovaries and trigger the maturation and release of eggs and the production of estrogen. At about the same time, the adrenal glands of both boys and girls begin to produce a group of hormones called adrenal androgens, which stimulate the growth of pubic and underarm hair in both sexes.
Differences in Puberty for Girls and Boys
Puberty generally starts earlier for girls, sometime between ages 8 and 13. 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 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, 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 her first period; depending on the age at which they begin their pubertal development, girls may get their first period between the ages of 9 and 16.
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. And that first voice crack is a sign that his voice is changing and will get 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 will also occur. Many boys become concerned about their penis size and may need reassurance, particularly if their development is later than other boys. If a boy is circumcised, he may also have questions about the skin that covers the tip of an uncircumcised penis.
Common Puberty Concerns
The physical changes kids experience as they move toward adulthood often are accompanied by emotions. 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.
Acne is common for most teens and 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 oil and help reduce breakouts. Along the lines of washing, kids who once associated bath time with play need to learn to wash their bodies 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.
As kids mature physically and emotionally, they also become increasingly curious about their sexuality and their own bodies. Masturbation is generally considered by doctors to be a common form of normal sexual self-exploration, though some teens may choose not to do it. Note that because masturbation is often considered a private topic, many kids may feel too embarrassed to talk about it because they’re concerned that their parents will be angry or disappointed with them. Be aware that some kids may prefer to talk to older siblings, friends, or their doctors rather than a parent.
Talking to Kids about Puberty
Boys and girls can see these changes happening to each other. 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, or are uncertain about how to have these talks with your child, ask your doctor for advice.