Understanding puberty

6min read

Puberty is a normal and healthy part of growing up, it’s a sign that your child or teen is moving both physically and emotionally towards adulthood. Puberty can start as early as age 8 or 9 for many children, or it could arrive later around the age of 14. 

Key Points:

  • As well as being an exciting and important part of growing up, puberty can also be a tricky time to navigate for teens and their families
  • It’s important to reassure your child or teen that changes to their body are normal and that everyone develops at different times
  • Puberty affects physical appearance, sweat levels, skin, hair and teeth. Internally changes are happening to the brain, sexual organs, and hormones. It can also affect mood, appetite, and sleep patterns

What is puberty?

Puberty is when your child’s body begins to develop and transition into adulthood. 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 gradual process and often takes several years, with those landmark events happening long after puberty gets under way. 

Boys and girls experience many similar changes - human bodies have more similarities between sexes than differences. Whether you have only sons or daughters, it is important to brush up on all changes so you are able to share this with your child.

Early signs of puberty

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.In boys, it’s likely that their penis and testicles will get bigger, and they will begin to grow pubic hair. 

One testicle or one breast may grow slightly faster or larger than the other - it’s important to reassure your child or teen that this is normal. Your child may grow taller, stronger, and heavier, they may also experience regular growth spurts and growing pains. It is important to remember that some gilrs may start their periods early too and if you are concerned, you can speak to your GP for guidance. 

Growth spurts

For boys and girls, the immediate result of a growth spurt can be that young 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.

The second reason is that their new body often can feel awkward. Early starters may find themselves towering over classmates, whilst late starters may look a year or so younger than their age mates, which can be difficult for them.

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. 

They’re shy, they feel awkward, and the new body simply won’t obey them as it once did.

Later changes

Boys and girls will find their outlines will alter as they get older. Faces often become fuller and the voice drops a little. Boys' voices will not deepen fully until puberty is well under way, and the Adam’s apple grows.

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. 

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.

Gender identity

During puberty, your child or teen may feel that their gender identity is different to their biological sex or the gender they were assigned at birth. If your child prefers not to identify as their birth gender, or perhaps any gender, puberty can be an especially hard and stressful time for them to navigate as their body changes. Try to encourage them to talk about how they are feeling and let them know that you are there to support them no matter what. Find out as much as you can about this so you are informed about their possible choices. The NSPCC has some practical information on how best to support your transgender or non-binary child or teen. The NHS website has advice on gender identity and puberty too.

Further resources

It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at askus@familylives.org.uk or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker. If you are worried about their development, please speak to your GP for advice and support. 

Other organisations that can help

The NHS website has advice on gender identity and puberty

Childline have lots of articles on puberty for your child to read 

The Mix has lots of advice on growing up and teen issues, they also offer 1-2-1 chat to teens if they want to talk to someone privately. 

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