Today, kids are exposed to so much information about sex and relationships on TV and the Internet that by the time they approach puberty, they may be familiar with some advanced ideas. And yet, talking about the issues of puberty remains an important job for parents because not all of a child's information comes from reliable sources.
Don't wait for your child to come to you with questions about his or her changing body — that day may never arrive, especially if your child doesn't know it's OK talk to you about this sensitive topic.
Ideally, as a parent, you've already started talking to your kids about the changes our bodies go through as we grow. Since the toddler years, kids have questions and most of your discussions probably come about as the result of your child's inquiries.
It's important to answer these questions about puberty honestly and openly — but don't always wait for your child to initiate a discussion. By the time kids are 8 years old, they should know what physical and emotional changes are associated with puberty. That may seem young, but consider this: some girls are wearing training bras by then and some boys' voices begin to change just a few years later.
The Timing With Boys and Girls
With girls, it's vital that parents talk about menstruation before their daughters actually get their periods. If they are unaware of what's happening, girls can be frightened by the sight and location of the blood.
Most girls get their first period when they're 12 or 13 years old, which is about 2 or 2½ years after they begin puberty. But some get their periods as early as age 9, while others get it as late as age 16.
On average, boys begin going through puberty a little later than girls, usually around age 10 or 11. But they may begin to develop sexually or have their first ejaculation without looking older.
Just as it helps adults to know what to expect with changes such as moving to a new home or working for a new company, kids should know about puberty ahead of time.
Many kids receive some sex education at school. Often, though, the lessons are segregated, and the girls hear primarily about menstruation and training bras while the boys hear about erections and changing voices. It's important that girls learn about the changes boys go through and boys learn about those affecting girls, so check with teachers about their lesson plans so you know what gaps need to be filled. It's a good idea to review the lessons with your child, since kids often still have questions about certain topics.
When talking to kids about puberty, it's important to be reassuring. Puberty brings about so many changes that it's easy for kids to feel insecure and alone.
Often, kids entering puberty feel insecure about their appearance, but it can help them to know that everyone goes through these changes, many of them awkward. They also should know that the timing of these changes can vary greatly. Acne, mood changes, growth spurts, and hormonal changes — it's all part of growing up and everyone goes through it, but not always at the same pace.
Girls may begin puberty as early as second or third grade, and it can be upsetting if your daughter is the first one to get a training bra, for example. She may feel alone and awkward or like all eyes are on her in the school locker room.
With boys, changes include the cracking and then deepening of the voice, and the growth of facial hair. And just as with girls, if your son is an early bloomer, he may feel awkward or like he's the subject of stares from his classmates.
Kids should know the following about puberty:
Girls become more rounded, especially in the hips and legs.
Girls' breasts begin to swell and then grow, sometimes one faster than the other
Girls and boys get pubic hair and underarm hair, and their leg hair becomes thicker and darker.
Both girls and boys often get acne and start to sweat more.
Both girls and boys have a growth spurt.
Boys' penises and testicles grow larger.
Boys' voices change and become deeper.
Boys grow facial hair and their muscles get bigger.
Boys sometimes have wet dreams, which means they ejaculate in their sleep.
When a girl begins menstruating, once a month, her uterine lining fills with blood in preparation for a fertilized egg. If the egg isn't fertilized, she will have a period. If it is fertilized, she will become pregnant.
A girl's period may last 3 days to a week, and she can use sanitary napkins (pads) or tampons to absorb the blood.
Not surprisingly, kids usually have lots of questions as they learn about puberty. It's important to make sure you give your child the time and opportunity to ask questions — and answer them as honestly and thoroughly as possible.
Some of the most common questions are:
What is this hard lump in my breast?
Girls may notice small, sometimes tender lumps beneath their nipples as their breasts are beginning to develop. This is perfectly normal. The firmness and tenderness will go away in time as the breasts continue to enlarge.
Why are my breasts so small (or so large)?
Breast size is different from girl to girl. Reassure your daughter that, big or small, all breasts are beautiful. It can be hard for girls to appreciate this since they develop at different times and rates. The size and shape of a girl's breasts will change as she continues to develop. But in the end, size won't affect her attractiveness or ability to breastfeed if she becomes a mother someday.
Why is my penis so small (or so large)?
With boys, the focus can be on the penis. Since not all boys develop at the same time or rate, your son may feel like he is too big or too small. His size will change as he continues to develop. Penises come in different sizes and shapes, but there are a lot less differences in size when penises are erect than when they're not.
Why don't I have pubic hair yet?
Everyone develops pubic hair, although some teens get it later than others. Just as with breast size or height, the amount or thickness of pubic hair is an individual trait.
I'm a boy, so why am I getting breasts?
Some boys experience temporary breast growth during puberty. The condition, called gynecomastia, is caused by changing hormone levels during puberty. It usually disappears, often within a few months to a couple of years.
Why haven't I gotten my period yet?
As with all of the changes in puberty, periods come at different times for different girls. Girls usually don't get their periods until 2 or 2½ years after starting puberty, so if your daughter started puberty later than other girls, she will probably get her period later than other girls as well. Some girls may not get their periods until they're 16. This is usually normal, although it can be tough for them when all of their friends have already gotten their periods.
Let your child know that you're available any time to talk. But it's also important to initiate conversations, too. As a parent, it's your job to try to discuss puberty — and the feelings associated with those changes — as openly as possible. While you might feel embarrassed or awkward discussing these sensitive topics, your child probably will be relieved to have you take the lead once in a while.
This can be easier if you're confident that you know the subject matter. So before you answer your child's questions, make sure your own questions have been answered. If you're not entirely comfortable having a conversation about puberty, practice what you want to say first. Let your child know that it may be a little uncomfortable to discuss, but it's an important talk to have.
If there are questions or concerns about puberty and development that you can't answer, ask your child's doctor for advice.