Understanding puberty

With puberty happening earlier, do you know what to expect from your child when hormones start to kick in? With advice on coping with the changing behaviour of a hormonal child, and tips on supporting boys and girls through this challenging time.

We often think of puberty as a specific event - the first period for a girl, the voice breaking or the first wet dream for a boy. In fact, puberty is a process and often takes several years with those landmark events coming along some years after the process gets under way. The process commonly starts for girls around their tenth or eleventh year and for boys around their eleventh or twelfth year. But it just as usual for both sexes to be a year or so earlier, or later. 

Boys and girls experience similar changes - human bodies have more similarities between sexes than differences. It’s useful for parents, and their children too, to be aware of this, and of the particular differences, so even if you have daughter(s) or son(s) only, it helps to brush up on the full range.

Early signs of puberty

What comes first? In girls, it’s likely to be a sudden increase in height, often closely followed by the budding of the breasts. The areola, the area around the nipples, will enlarge and darken slightly. This area will bulge outwards and develop into distinct breasts.    

The immediate result of the growth spurt can be that young people of both sexes become extremely clumsy. There are two main reasons for this. The first is simple mechanics. Hands and feet that four weeks ago were one distance from their body are now a tiny bit further away. The simple act of reaching for a cup or walking across a room is complicated by the brain not having caught up with that fact. Teenagers have to make constant adjustments to their new size and thus the new centre of gravity of their bodies. This is frequently not easy.

Their awkwardness is made worse by the second reason, the fact that this new body often embarrasses them. Early starters may find themselves towering over classmates, which can be awkward. Late starters may look a year or so younger than their age mates, which can be humiliating. Teenage girls may hunch over to hide developing breasts, walk with their arms crossed or insist on wearing coats or baggy jumpers even in summer. Boys trying to control their new gangling arms may shove their hands in pockets, fiddle with things and, rather than standing in the open, will slouch and lean against walls or furniture. It is why teenagers are often to be found sitting on pavements or steps or leaning against lampposts. They’re shy, they feel awkward and the new body simply won’t obey them as it once did.

Weight gain

Another early sign of the onset of adolescence is a gain in weight in both sexes. Boys and girls will find their outlines will alter. The weight should redistribute itself very quickly as long as their diet is healthy and their lives are active. Girls hips become wider and padded with a layer of fat, and their thighs will fill out. Face often become fuller and the voice drops a little. Boys become heavier in the shoulders and muscles over the body will thicken. 

Boys voices will not deepen until puberty is well under way, and the Adam’s apple grows. Around the time that their body hair has thickened,  boys will go through a phase when their voices “break”. They may find they cannot stop themselves wavering between a younger, high-pitched treble and a deeper tone, especially when they are excited, angry or nervous.

Boys as well as girls will find the areola, the area around the nipples, enlarges and darkens slightly. While for girls the development of breasts is an early and expected sign of puberty as many as one in two boys will also find their nipples pushing out and heavier breast tissue developing, to their acute embarrassment. This is called gynaecomastia and is a perfectly normal, passing phase. It certainly does not mean that the boy is turning into a woman or has anything amiss in his physical development. It usually recedes after a few months, although it can last for 12 to 18 months. 

The change in body shape may also give all of you in your family a chance to consider important issues around healthy eating and exercise. There is a difference between healthy adolescent padding and being overweight. Overweight children become overweight teenagers, become fat adults. Many schools are now trying to reverse a cycle that saw regular and routine exercise being reduced at the same time as fatty, sugary food became freely available to pupils in school canteens, on school premises or from shops they could access during the school day nearby. But offering healthy food, and healthy exercise, in school can have little effect if what happens at home encourages patterns of behaviour that work against such initiatives. If this might be something you’ve struggled with yourself and feel you could and should address, having a teenager in the house might be an ideal time for all of you. 

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If you would like support and advice, you can talk to one of our Family Support Workers by calling our confidential helpline on 0808 800 2222. You can also share experiences and advice with other parents on our Forums. Family Lives is here for you and you can contact us about any family issue, big or small.

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