What is Puberty?
Puberty is the time between childhood and adulthood when girls' and boys' bodies change rapidly as they grow into young women and men.
Everyone's body changes at different times and at different rates. Some young people start puberty when they are nine, 10, or 11 years old. Others start when they are in their middle to late teens. Generally, girls start puberty before boys. Caused by chemicals in the body called hormones, puberty does not happen overnight. It can last for a few years.
During puberty, girls and boys experience many changes.They often wonder if they are "normal." Changes include a growth spurt, increased pubic and underarm hair, acne, and the development of sweat glands.They also often experience a rollercoaster of emotions-feeling happy one minute and angry the next.
During puberty, girls' bodies change shape. Breasts develop and hips widen. Menstruation starts-making it possible for those that have intercourse to get pregnant.
During puberty, boys grow facial hair, develop deeper voices, grow larger penises, and begin to make sperm -making it possible for them to father a child if they have intercourse.
Puberty is a time when young people often want more independence and privacy.Their relationships with friends and family often change.They may develop crushes, begin to date, experience sexual feelings, face peer pressure, and struggle with body image and self-esteem.
Following are some typical questions about sexuality from students in fifth and sixth grade classes. It can be helpful for parents and caregivers to practice answering these questions before talking with their children.
"Why do we have to go through puberty?"
"Does puberty hurt?"
"What is a sign that puberty is starting?"
"Why do we get hair on our privates?"
"How can people get a 'six pack' in their stomachs?"
"What is masturbation?"
Questions about Girls' Bodies
"When do girls grow breasts and why?"
"Why do girls have a period?"
"How do you know you're beginning to get your period?"
"How old do you have to be to get your period?"
"Is it true that girls have one breast smaller than the other?"
"What if you have your period; is it better to use a tampon or pad?"
Questions about Boys' Bodies
"Do boys develop sperm at a young age?"
"What is the color of sperm?"
"Does sperm come from the testicles?"
"What's a wet dream?"
"What happens when you jerk off?"
"How long is the man's or boy's penis or the longest it could grow?"
Other Questions Young People Asked
"When you have sex, do you bleed?"
"How does the man make the woman pregnant?"
"How does it feel to have sex?"
"Where do babies come from?"
"How do you reproduce?"
"What happens during an orgasm?"
With the exception of infancy, young people experience their most rapid growth during puberty. And puberty is happening earlier than ever before-sometimes as early as age nine. Young people will probably notice the signs of puberty before their parents and caregivers do.They will have many questions and will wonder if their experiences are "normal." Puberty can be both exciting and scary. It is important that parents and caregivers prepare their children little by little so they will understand puberty and feel comfortable about the changes happening to their bodies.
It's easy for young people to overlook the fact that parents and caregivers once went through puberty.Talking to the young people in your life about your experiences can help them prepare for the changes that happen during puberty. It also lets them know that you are there to support them through the physical and emotional changes that they are likely to experience. Parents and caregivers can begin the conversation when a "teachable moment" presents itself or by saying something like "I remember when I was your age and my body began to change..."
- When and how you learned about puberty
- Who, if anyone, you felt comfortable talking with about puberty
- How the changes you experienced made you feel
- A positive experience you had during puberty
- An embarrassing experience you had during puberty
- What you wish someone had told you before you went through puberty
- What you wish someone had told you during puberty
- Photos of yourself before, during, and after puberty
Celebrating Puberty as a Rite of Passage: An Activity for Young People and their Parents and Caregivers
Many cultures have rituals or ceremonies to mark the transition as girls and boys become young women and men.
In the United States, some people may have cultural, religious, community, or family traditions. Others may create a celebration to acknowledge this event.
Young people, parents, and caregivers can:
- Visit the public library or use the Internet to research rituals or ceremonies throughout the world
- Ask extended family members and friends if they have a special ritual in their family
- Make a list of ideas and then decide how to celebrate their rite of passage
Perhaps young people will want to:
- Create a special book or journal to express your feelings and thoughts through the years. This may include keepsakes, drawings, or poems
- Have a party
- Go to a favorite restaurant, park, beach, or other meaningful place
- Receive a special gift
What is Your Child Learning About Puberty at School?
Learning about Puberty in School? Some schools teach young people about puberty. Others do not. Find out what your child may-or may not be-learning in school so that you can provide or supplement that information.
- Ask your child what they are learning about puberty at school
- Contact the teacher or principal and seek specific details about what the school teaches about puberty
- Ask to review the handouts, textbooks, and other materials the school provides your child
- Advocate for young people to receive comprehensive sexuality education
In a national study of young people eight to 15 years of age:
In a national study* of young people eight to 15 years of age:
70% have talked to their mother or father about puberty
26% have talked regularly to their mother or father about puberty
45% are "kind of comfortable" talking to their mother or father about puberty
37% would like to know more about puberty
In a national study of parents of young people eight to 15 years of age:
65% have talked with their child about puberty
52% said that the first time they talked with their child about puberty they initiated the conversation
34% said that their child brought it up
51% have talked with their child about puberty a couple of times
Sharing Messages with Young People about Puberty
Before talking with children about puberty, it is helpful for parents and caregivers to consider the messages they want to share. These can include:
- Bodies change as children grow older
- Puberty begins and ends at different ages for different people
- Some people do not reach puberty until their later teens
- Girls often begin puberty before boys
- A young person may feel clumsy, self-conscious, or uncomfortable during puberty
- The sexual and reproductive systems mature during puberty
- Girls begin to ovulate and menstruate during puberty
- Boys begin to produce sperm and ejaculate during puberty
- People are able to have children only after they have reached puberty
- Many people begin to develop sexual and romantic feelings during puberty
Tips to Help Parents and Caregivers Talk to Their Children about Puberty
- Do not wait until your child asks questions
- Think of the messages that you want to share
- Seek "teachable moments"- daily opportunities that occur when you are with your child -that make it easy to share your messages and values
- Let your child know that you are open to talking with them about sexuality issues
- Share your experiences of puberty with your child
- Provide pamphlets, books, and other age-appropriate, medically-accurate materials
- If you don't know how to answer your child's question, offer to find the answer or look it up together
- Find out what your child's school is teaching about puberty
Reprinted with the permission of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. © 2005 SIECUS.
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