Puberty isn’t a four letter word, nor is it something you should feel confident about ignoring until your child is older. Puberty may be arriving sooner rather than later for your child. Even if your child begins developing at a later age than most, he or she is likely to have friends who begin puberty early in elementary school. Did you know that recent research (2010) found that more than 1 in 7 seven year old girls (15%) and more than 1 in 4 eight year old girls (27%) had already started puberty?
What Is It?
Puberty is the process of changing from a child to an adult, including the acquisition of reproductive capabilities. It is important to remember that this is not a single event; it is a multi-year process involving numerous milestones. During this stage of life children experience considerable change: physically, emotionally, cognitively and socially.
When Does It Begin?
Typically puberty begins between seven and fourteen years of age in girls and between nine and fourteen years of age in boys. Every child experiences an individualized pubertal timeline. Both genetics and environment play roles in the age of onset. Gender also plays a role, causing girls to start puberty a few years before boys. By the end of elementary school, most girls have begun developing and are taller than the boys. Within a few years the boys not only catch up, but also surpass the girls in average height.
The physical changes are the easiest to observe. These changes include a number of milestones that generally occur in a specific order.
For most girls the first sign of puberty is the start of breast development (pubic hair is the first sign for a small percentage). Hair follows: pubic then underarm. Menarche (a girl’s first menstrual period) typically occurs over two years into the pubertal process.
Note: Menstrual cycles may not be ovulatory or regular for some time after onset.
For most boys the first sign of puberty is growth of the testicles (pubic hair is the first sign for a small percentage). Hair follows: pubic then underarm. Later, the voice deepens and muscles increase in size. Finally, facial hair growth begins.
Note: Boys achieve fertility relatively early in the pubertal process when the increase in testosterone enables the production of sperm.
How Do I Prepare?
While school classes, community programs, and your child’s pediatrician are excellent resources, they should serve to supplement rather than replace the primary educator. Your role (and, depending upon your family’s structure that of your partner or spouse) is to be your child’s first and primary puberty educator. The most important thing you can do is to start the conversation (in an age appropriate manner) before your child starts school, regularly continue the conversation in the years until puberty arrives, and continue it alongside more detailed human sexuality education once puberty is underway.
The following tips are helpful and healthy general guidelines:
– Listen carefully
– Use proper names for body parts
– Take advantage of young children’s natural curiosity
– Introduce educational toys that teach about the body
– Make the most of teachable moments
– Provide honest, complete, and simple answers
– Correct misinformation
– Share stories of your own experiences
– Teach puberty basics for both boys and girls (not just your child’s own gender)
– Wait for your child to approach you and ask questions
– Assume you need to become or should act like an expert
– Think its harmful to share too much too soon
– Try to cover everything (or even big chunks of information) in a single conversation
– Stop learning
Tara Bruley (Founder of Be Prepared Period) and Greg Smith (Director of Education for You ARE Loved) are partners in education who seek to empower parents to fulfill their roles as their child’s first and primary puberty educator.
Biro, F., Galvez, M., Greenspan, L., Succop, P., Vangeepuram, N., Pinney, S., Teitelbaum, S. , Windham, G., Kushi, L., & Wolff, M. (2010). Pubertal assessment method and baseline characteristics in a mixed longitudinal study of girls. Pediatrics, 126, e583-e590. Doi: 0.1542/peds.2009-3079