Changes In Girls and Boys In Puberty
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Dear Dr. Vicki,
I have a 10-year-old daughter who is already showing signs of puberty. Is this normal? What should I tell her?
Dear Dr. Vicki,
Although his friends are starting to develop, my twelve-year old son doesn’t have any signs of body changes yet. How do I explain this to him?
Dr. Vicki’s advice:
Puberty is an issue with which most parents experience some degree of difficulty. It is a stage of development that many parents dread for three reasons. For one thing, it means having to come to terms with the fact that their child is growing up and developing adult characteristics. Secondly, it means we have to discuss topics that most parents find uncomfortable. And finally, it means we have to put up with our alien children for a while. Just remember, this too shall pass.
Puberty is the stage of development during which children’s bodies begin to change on their way to becoming adults. Every child is different in the timing of these changes. What is important to remember is that each child will experience the same kinds of changes, just in their own time. Girls’ bodies begin to develop between the ages of 8 and 14. Boys usually begin to enter puberty between the ages of 10 and 16. Changes not only occur biologically, but socially and emotionally, as well. During puberty, the brain releases those ‘dreaded’ hormones, estrogen and progesterone in girls and testosterone in boys.
These hormones cause a number of changes in the body. Girls’ breast development is usually one of the first signs of puberty. They usually start out as “buds” underneath the nipple and the areola (darker area around the nipple); gradually the areola may darken and the breast tissue will begin to grow beyond it. It is not unusual for one breast to develop more quickly than the other one. This is normal, and eventually both breasts will even out. Breasts may be sore or tender as they enlarge. Girls may have a white vaginal discharge up to a year before their period starts. Approximately two years after breast development starts, girls will begin to have menstrual periods. At first they may be very irregular, but will gradually become normal, regular cycles.
Both boys and girls can experience tremendous and sudden growth spurts. For some children, this can feel awkward and clumsy, as their legs and arms keep lengthening and they sometimes aren’t sure where their extremities begin and end. Girls will begin to develop ‘curves’, and they tend to put on weight, particularly in their hips. Boys will also gain weight, and their bodies will change shape as their shoulders widen and their bodies become more muscular. Their penis and scrotum will increase in size, and the penis will lengthen and widen. Because their vocal cords become longer, boys’ voices begin to deepen. However, as the voice is changing, they may experience abrupt changes in their voice, generally referred to as ‘cracks’.
Boys and girls will begin to develop body hair under their arms and in the pubic area, first as ‘peach fuzz’, and later becoming darker. Hair on their arms and legs may also grow and become darker. Boys will begin to grow hair on their faces and chests.
Hormones also affect skin glands, causing the skin to produce more oil and sweat. This can cause oily skin, pimples and acne. This also causes body odor.
While hormones are surging, mood swings are extremely common. They can go from crying jags to rages faster than a speeding bullet. Children often feel self-conscious and anxious about the changes in their bodies. Keep in mind, that these emotional ups and downs are all normal and to be expected. That doesn’t mean they are easy to deal with.
What to tell your children? This depends upon their age. It is preferential to discuss the up-coming bodily changes with them prior to the beginning of puberty, around fourth or fifth grade. This is a scary but exciting time in the life of your child. I recommend approaching your talk in a positive, even excited manner, explaining that their bodies are beginning to change into adult bodies. Explaining changes, what to expect, and why these changes are occurring, is helpful in order to allay your child’s fears. Please do not call your daughter’s period ‘the curse’. This conveys a very negative summation of a process that will one day allow you to experience the joys of grandparenthood.
Talk about possible feelings of embarrassment, discomfort and shame, as well as the sensations and urges that they may begin to develop. If your child reaches puberty on the earlier or later side of the norm, let them know that everyone will go through the same process, and they will do it at various ages and stages. Discuss the need for good hygiene, including thorough face-washing and showering. Deodorant and cologne may give them better confidence of reducing body odor. Introduce your daughter to sanitary napkins, discussing how to use and dispose of them, as well as the possibility of ‘accidents’. Encourage both boys and girls not to start shaving too soon; once they do, they will have to continually deal with the stubble.
One of the key things to do is to correct any misconceptions your child may have either out of fear, or due to misinformation being given by peers. If you are uncomfortable addressing sexual issues directly, visual aids such as books and videos can be extremely helpful. For younger children, I like Where Did I Come From? and What’s Happening to Me? There is a great video put out by the Children’s Television Network called “What Kids Want to Know About Sex and Growing Up”. Keep the lines of communication open. And remember again, this too shall pass.
© MMVI Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D.