Puberty can be a very exciting and thrilling, yet scary and confusing time for your child. During puberty, your child will go through an astounding number of changes. In fact, with the exception of the first year of life, at no other point does a person go through more physical and emotional changes than they do at puberty. If the last time you had to deal with puberty was when you went through it 15 years ago, then you may want a refresher course on just what happens when.
The Start of It All
A time of transition, puberty marks your child’s maturation from childhood to adolescence and adulthood. It is during puberty that a person’s body begins to take on sexual characteristics. For many parents, this change can be a bit scary because it means their child is developing into a sexual being. But how do these changes begin?
In everyone’s brain, there is an area called the hypothalamus. At the appropriate time according to your child’s body, the hypothalamus will begin secreting gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). This hormone will eventually reach and stimulate the pituitary gland, causing it to secrete lutenizing hormone (LH) as well as follicle–stimulating hormones (FSH).
These hormones then begin to travel through the bloodstream until they reach the reproductive organs. In boys, the presence of LH and FSH in the testicles will indicate that it is time to start producing testosterone and sperm. For girls, these hormones affect the ovaries, causing her body to start producing estrogen as well as beginning the process of maturing and releasing eggs.
Seeing is Believing
Often, the first question on most parents’ minds is "When will my child start puberty?" There is a fairly wide range between the sexes as to just when puberty will occur. Even within the same sex group, one child may start puberty long before her peers start.
Changes in girls during puberty can begin anywhere between 8 and 14 years of age. Usually the first sign that female puberty has begun is through breast development in girls. Boys’ puberty begins after the girls, between 10 and 15 years of age. For a boy, the first sign that puberty has begun is growth of his testicles, which is followed shortly thereafter by the growth of his penis.
In both sexes, an increase of body hair, specifically in the pubic area and under the arms, will become visible not too long after puberty has started. This hair usually starts off quite light and thin, becoming darker, thicker and longer as puberty advances.
Other shared changes between the sexes include a change in body shape, putting on weight, emotional changes and experiencing a growth spurt. Growth spurts on average last for two to three years and by the end of this period, most youth will have reached their full adult height. As if puberty wasn’t awkward enough for your child, the fact that his growth spurt may cause specific body areas (like the feet or arms) to grow faster than others can cause him to feel especially clumsy and embarrassed. But you can put his mind at ease by reassuring him that the rest of his body will soon catch up.
As any pregnant woman knows, hormones are not always your friends. Because of the sudden increase in hormone production, teen puberty often results in acne, oily skin and B.O. While none of this is surprising, since hormones affect the skin glands, your child may not be too thrilled at smelling like she was rolling in dirt all day, having greasy skin and a face speckled with pimples to top it all off. However, encouraging her to clean her face with a gentle cleanser and shower daily as well as using deodorant should help to clear up these problems.
Have you noticed that your once sweet, loving son has turned into a ticking emotional time bomb these days? No, his angry outbursts and highly sensitive demeanor are not indicative of him reverting back to the terrible twos; rather it’s those hormones wreaking havoc. They’re not called raging hormones for nothing. Increased moodiness and sensitivity, while not always pleasant, are a normal part of puberty. However, these emotional changes may not always coincide with the physical changes. As trying as it can be, remember: just like the other stages of child development, your child will grow out of this as well.
What Happens Next
Puberty in teen boys can often seem like a more traumatic experience than girls going through puberty. Boys during puberty have to deal with many obvious changes, like the deepening of their voice, the growth of facial hair and, perhaps most embarrassing of all, erections.
It is very normal for boys to experience spontaneous erections, when their penis becomes erect often for no reason, as well as nocturnal emissions. More commonly known as "wet dreams," nocturnal emissions occur when a boy ejaculates during his sleep. If he has never had a wet dream before, he may just think he wet his bed.
Breast development is often one of the first stages of early puberty in girls and is one of the few visible signs that her body has begun to mature. For some girls, her growing breasts may be very exciting and she will jump at the chance to go and buy her first bra. For other girls, though, this development can make them feel very insecure about their body, especially if her breasts grow too fast or hardly at all.
Menstruation usually begins one to two years after a girl’s breast start to develop. This can be anywhere between the ages of 9 and 16. However, her cycle will likely be irregular for the first year or two as her body adjusts to releasing an egg every month. Just prior to her getting her period, though, she is likely to experience a growth spurt and put on more weight, particularly in the hip and thigh area.
Although many parents do not like to think or even acknowledge it, puberty is also a time of increasing awareness about sexuality. Many pubescent tweens and teens begin to explore the new sexual feelings they have by masturbating. While you may not like the thought of it, it is important to remember that masturbation is perfectly normal and healthy behavior.
Every child is unique and will begin puberty at a different age. While there is a fairly large range as to just when a child may start puberty, there is cause for concern if your child starts to develop too early. Known as precocious puberty, girls who begin maturing before the age of seven or boys who enter puberty before the age of nine should be seen by a doctor. Various complications can arise from starting puberty at too young an age. If your child is diagnosed with precocious puberty, there are a variety of treatment options that can help halt the maturation process until the appropriate time.
Have any teens or preteens at home? Chat with other moms about teen development and behaviour.