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When is the time to talk about puberty?

Puberty. We all go through it. It was a strange time for most of us and it’s still a strange time for most kids today. We can help our kids feel empowered with the knowledge to make this strange period of time, less confusing.

What is puberty?

Puberty is a normal part of growing up and involves changes to most body systems that occur over years. Puberty is caused by hormones (chemical messengers made by the body) that lead to a predictable order of events. Here’s a summary of some physical changes to expect:

Girls: 

  • Breast budding (tender, semi-firm lumps under the areola) is often the first noticeable sign of puberty. This happens between age of 8 and 13. Pubic and underarm hair also begins to grow around this time. Body odor and pimples may be noticeable right before or during breast development.
  • Over the next 2 years, breasts change in shape and size, with breast tissue developing around and under the areola. More pubic and underarm hair grows. 
  • Some folks may notice clear, vaginal discharge or what feels or looks like wetness in their underwear about 6 to 12 months before menstruation begins. 
  • Menstruation (e.g., vaginal bleeding or periods) typically begins around 2 years after breast budding is first noticed. 
  • For some, breasts may continue to change shape slightly and size after periods start.
  • A period of rapid growth in height, weight, and muscle mass typically occurs about 1 year after puberty (i.e., breast budding) begins.
  • If there is no breast development by age 13 or no periods by age 16, talk with your child’s pediatrician.

Boys:

  • The testes and scrotum begin to grow in size at the beginning of puberty. This happens between age of 9 and 14. Pubic and underarm hair also begin to grow. Body odor and pimples may begin to be noticeable right before or during these changes.
  • Testes continue to grow bigger and the penis begins to grow longer and wider. Pubic hair continues to grow. Facial hair will begin to grow and fill in over time. 
  • A period of rapid growth in height, weight, and muscle mass typically occur about 2 years after puberty (i.e., enlargement of testes) begins. 
  • If there is no enlargement of the testes by age 14, talk with your child’s pediatrician.

When and how to talk about puberty?

There is no perfect time to talk about puberty. You can look for teachable moments early and often to share information about bodies and expected, normal changes as children grow. Having these conversations over the years allows children to understand they have a safe place to ask tough or embarrassing questions.

As your child ages, the content can evolve as well. For example, if your 3-year-old asks why her chest is flat, but mommy's isn't, a parent may respond by sharing that bodies change as you get older. Growing breasts is a normal part of development.

If your 6-year-old asks why daddy's penis is bigger than his, you can share that as your child grows, he can expect his penis to grow, too. You can also share he can expect hair to grow to cover the base on the penis and scrotum. Not all penises look alike and that's okay. If he asks more questions, such as why the penis grows and changes, you can share that this is the body's way of getting ready to make a baby. The body becomes ready physically before he will be ready mentally. This may flow over into questions about healthy relationships, safe touch and sex.

For the child who is eager to ask, use that as an opportunity to talk about how children's bodies change over time to look more adult. It’s best to be specific and use anatomically correct terms for body parts like penis, scrotum, vagina, vulva, breasts to help reduce body shame. It’s also safer for kids to know the correct terms. When kids are knowledgeable about their own bodies, they are less likely to be exploited and more likely to recognize inappropriate touch and behavior and communicate it clearly to a trusted adult. 

Straight forward answers that first, praise the child for asking, and then, provide clear information, are best. If the thought of these discussions makes you uneasy or if you don't think you are up for the task, there are numerous resources that can help (see resource list below). Once you get a question you aren't sure you can answer, you can simply reply with... "what a great question. We have a book/or information from experts that can help us answer that. Let's read it together..." Another option is to connect your child with a designated adult you trust, like a close relative, pediatrician or health care provider.

Ideally, a child has the opportunity to learn and ask questions about puberty before the “puberty talk” at school, which typically occurs around 4th or 5th grade. Think of the school’s talk as a refresher course, or perhaps a different perspective with another adult leading the discussion, rather than the only chance for a child to learn about puberty.

What are some common questions about puberty?

Kids will often ask questions you never expected. But, here are a few things you might be prepared for when it comes to questions about puberty.

  • Will I get zits with puberty?
  • Will periods hurt?
  • Will I know when my period is coming?
  • Why is daddy's penis bigger/hairier than mine?
  • What are breasts for? Will I get them too?

Resource websites:

Any other family favorites? Tell us in the comments below.

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Adolescent Medicine