(For Parents of Children with Typical Development)
Puberty is a stage of development marked by many rapid changes. Along with physical changes, the process of sexual maturation also occurs during puberty. It is all part of becoming an adult.
It might sound crass but, really, the only reason we go through puberty is so that we can have babies and perpetuate the human race. Ah, nature… creating imperatives that not even humans can ignore. Which only goes to show that in some ways we’re not much different from cockroaches or crocodiles, are we?
Puberty has its unpleasant moments, but it would be a lot less unpleasant if everyone went through it at the same time and rate. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works – puberty happens when your body is ready for it to happen, and that varies from one person to the next.
The experts don’t all agree but we can safely say that, on average, puberty begins for girls between the ages of 8 and 13. That’s an average – which means that some perfectly normal girls will start puberty before the age of 8 and some perfectly normal girls will start puberty after the age of 13. On average, puberty begins for boys between the ages of 10 and 15. Again, that’s only an average. Some perfectly normal boys will start puberty before the age of 10 and some perfectly normal boys will start puberty after the age of 15.
Puberty doesn't start and end with breast growth and getting a period for girls, or with a voice that has deepened for boys. It usually takes about 3-4 years to get through puberty. But there are some people who complete the process in just 2 years, while others take 5-6 years. Again, this entire range is normal. Again, the experts don’t all agree.
Puberty is starting earlier and earlier – especially for girls. On average, it now begins six years earlier than it did just 200 years ago. There are a lot of theories as to why this may be happening – including changes in the food we eat, the presence of pesticides, hormones, and preservatives in many foods, changes in our eating habits, and environmental degradation – but there are no definite answers yet.
We firmly believe that girls should know what happens to boys during puberty and boys should know what happens to girls during puberty. Why? Because it builds empathy – the ability to understand what another person is feeling or going through. Let’s face it, children will probably be embarrassed by some of the changes that will happen to them during puberty, and the last thing they want is to be teased about these changes. So, if a girl understands what boys are going through, and if a boy understands what girls are going through, then maybe they won’t tease each other as much. Or if you need to put it more bluntly to your child: "If you don’t want to be teased, then don't tease other children."
Talking about sexuality can make some parents feel uncomfortable, and it is tempting to let the time slide by – hoping that puberty will be covered in school. You are the most influential person in your child’s life as they develop a sense of themselves and their relationships to the people and world around them. Don't let your fears silence you.
When do you start talking with your child about puberty? Before it happens. When will that be? Hard to tell, but consider genetics – your child may begin puberty around the same time one of their parents began puberty. So, make your best guess as to when puberty will begin for your child, and start talking before then – no child should experience their first period or their first wet dream without knowing about it ahead of time. Continue the discussions all throughout puberty.
Am I Normal? What's Wrong with Me?
Most pre-teens and teens going through puberty are convinced that there is something wrong with them – that their bodies are not following the rules of puberty. Consider the boy who develops little breasts. This happens to more than half of all boys during puberty – it’s normal and the breasts go away in a year to 18 months. But if nobody told the boy about this, he might think he got the wrong hormones and he was turning into a girl.
And so the question “Am I normal?” becomes almost an obsession with many pre-teens and teens during puberty. Or to word it differently, the question “What’s wrong with me?” becomes almost an obsession. And no wonder. If you’re the first girl in your class to develop breasts, that’s a bad thing. If you’re the last girl in your class to develop breasts, that’s a bad thing. If you’re a boy who gets an erection in front of the class, that’s a bad thing. If you’re a boy whose voice cracks when you’re trying to impress a girl, that’s a bad thing. Getting your period when you’re not prepared – bad. If you’re a boy, and all the girls are taller than you – bad. Uncontrollable mood swings for both girls and boys – bad. The variations are almost endless. Throw in pimples and body odor and you can begin to understand why you need to keep telling your child that they are perfectly normal. If fact, here's a list of things you should keep telling your child:
But Wait... There's More
Your next step should be to download All About Puberty: A Handbook for Children and Parents. This handbook provides facts, information, and starting places for conversations. It will also provide you with ideas on how to best present your own values and beliefs. It's an incredible resource – made all the more incredible because it's written for both you and your child. Here are just some of the topics covered in the handbook:
The handbook is in PDF format, so you’ll be able to save it to your computer and print out any pages that you want.
Finally, we also think your child should have one of these two books: