Understanding Puberty

See also: Talking about Puberty

Puberty is the process of growing from a child into an adult.

As anyone who has been through it will confirm, it is quite a challenging stage of life. During puberty, the body goes through a series of hormonal and physical changes, which prepare the body for adulthood and, particularly, sexual maturity.

This page explains more about what happens during puberty, and particularly the signs to expect. You may also find it helpful to read our page on Understanding Adolescence to find out more about hormonal and neurological changes that happen at the same time.

Timing of Puberty

Just as they have done throughout childhood, children’s bodies change and grow in their own time.

Puberty usually starts between about 10 and 14 in girls, and at around 13 or 14 in boys, but it can vary much more widely and could easily be a couple of years either side of this. Some research suggests that its onset is closely related to body weight, but this is not absolute.

Signs of Puberty – What to Expect

Although we often think of boys and girls as going through quite different physical processes during puberty, actually many of the signs are very similar in both sexes.

For example:

  • Both boys and girls are likely to have a sudden growth spurt.

    They will grow taller, and this may happen quite quickly. Oddly enough, certain bits of the body, particularly arms and legs, may grow quicker than others, which is why teenagers often look a bit ‘gangly’.

    A side effect of this is that teenagers often seem to become a bit uncoordinated. Although this is seen in younger children going through growth spurts too, it is particularly obvious during adolescence because the growth spurt is quite major. It’s hard to control your body properly when the relative locations of your hands and feet keep changing.

  • Both boys and girls will start to grow body hair.

    Girls grow underarm and pubic hair, and some also develop hairs elsewhere such as on their top lip. Boys are likely to start growing more body hair in plenty of other places too, including chest, back, face, and arms and legs.

  • Both boys and girls will see a weight gain, and changes in body shape, although these changes are slightly different in the two sexes.

    Girls tend to put on weight around their hips and waist, as well as developing breasts. Boys are more likely to become more muscular, and find that their shoulders broaden.

  • Both sexes will experience mood swings.

    Puberty is a bit of an emotional and hormonal roller coaster, and both boys and girls will experience mood swings. The best way to cope as a parent is to remember that it is a phase, and it will pass eventually. Within a couple of years the mood swings will stop and they will become calm, rational human beings again.

  • Both sexes are likely to sweat more.

    This is related to hormonal changes in the body. Both boys and girls will sweat more and, because of the new hairy growth in the armpits, it will stay around. And there is no nice way to say this: the sweat will smell. It is therefore important to maintain good personal hygiene: teenagers need to wash or shower every day, and perhaps start to use deodorant. As parents, you may need to steer them towards this.

  • Boys and girls will usually get spots.

    Research suggests that 80% of adolescents get spots and some point. Hormones change the way that the skin secretes oil, and may make it increase the amount produced. This, in turn, may block pores, and lead to the development of spots. While perfectly normal, it can be unsightly and embarrassing. Unfortunately, there is not very much that can be done.

    There are theories that boys get acne worse than girls, but perhaps this is more to do with girls being better at covering up than boys.

    The NHS has a page on acne, which advises washing the skin gently with a mild cleanser and using oil-free moisturiser. Scrubbing the skin is unlikely to help.

There are also some changes during puberty that are specific to one sex or the other.

Changes in Girls

  • Breasts and hips will get bigger.

    The area around the nipples, the areola, will also get bigger and darker.

  • Vaginal discharge will start.

    Many girls find that they start to see a whitish discharge on their underpants about a year before they start their periods. This is the way that the vagina stays clean and healthy. The discharge should be white and not smell. If it does smell, or is yellowish, then there may be an infection, and you should encourage your child to see a doctor.

  • Periods will start.

    Usually about two years after the initial growth spurt, and the breasts starting to develop, girls start their periods. These may be accompanied by period pains before or during the period, which can be more or less severe. The average age for starting periods is about 12, but this can vary quite widely.

Changes in Boys

  • Boys will grow a bigger penis and testicles.

    Boys may also start to get unexpected erections, which can cause embarrassment.

  • Usually a couple of years into puberty, boys’ voices will deepen.

    The process of the voice ‘breaking’ can be quite embarrassing for them, as they may struggle to control whether they are speaking in a high or low voice, particularly when a bit stressed.

  • Boys will start ‘wet dreams’.

    As they start to produce sperm, they are likely to ejaculate (release seminal fluid) at night.

A period of ‘ups and downs’

Adolescence in general, and puberty in particular, is a challenging period both for the young people going through it, and for those around them, especially their parents. Mood swings and physical changes are difficult for young people to take on board and handle, and this may make them difficult to live with.

However, like every other phase, it will eventually pass. Life will settle down again for all of you. The best way to cope is to stay calm and remember this.