Talking With Your Child About Puberty
It's a big change for the whole family. Taking advantage of everyday events — something you both see on television, for example — can ease you into "the talk."
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Voices crack, pimples appear, and mood swings are fast and furious. One thing scarier than realizing your son or daughter is on the verge of puberty is talking with the child about it.
Prepare for Puberty
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, puberty begins for girls when they are between 8 and 13 years old and for boys between 10 and 16. Puberty, which is basically the time when a child's body becomes ready to reproduce, is a period of speedy change — physically and emotionally.
When it comes to talking to your child about puberty, experts say it's not the best idea to wait until it is upon your child. "It is never too early to start talking to children about the ways the body works," says Rebecca Dingfelder, PhD, associate professor at the Duke Child and Family Study Center in Durham, N.C. "As your child reaches the 8-to-13 age range, begin to talk about the changes that are likely started or going to start happening in his or her body."
If you are feeling a little uncertain about how to begin a conversation with your child, Dr. Dingfelder recommends the following:
- Watch your preteen's favorite TV show together.As puberty topics come up, talk about them.
- Notice when your child notices.Talk about puberty when your child notices or comments on changes in other people's bodies.
- Talk the talk.Bring up puberty when discussing conversations your child had with peers.
- Coordinate with school lessons.Talk about puberty in conjunction with health discussions from school.
The best starters for these conversations are things that happen every day, says Dingfelder.
Explaining the Stages of Puberty
Knowing what to expect during puberty is key to communicating these changes to your child. Here are the basic steps of growth and changes that occur during puberty for girls and boys:
Girls' Stages of Puberty:
- Breasts begin to grow
- Hips start to round out
- Final growth spurt occurs for adult height (typically ends by 14 or 15)
- Pubic hair begins to grow about six months after breasts
- The uterus, vagina, clitoris, and labia grow and mature
- Menstruation begins (on average, between 12 and 13 years old)
During this time, your daughter will also notice that her hair and skin are becoming oilier, she is sweating more, and her body hair may darken. You will have to start talking about such issues as:
- Applying deodorant
- Cleansing to reduce acne
- Shaving legs and underarms
- Using tampons and/or sanitary napkins for menstruation
Talking about sex and puberty before puberty begins may help your daughter cope with the inevitable changes more gracefully, especially if she develops earlier than other girls. A study of 330 fifth-graders showed that girls who started menstruation about one year earlier than average and who reported that their parents were neither affectionate nor informative about issues of adolescence were more likely to be aggressive (biting, kicking, hitting) — an indicator of trouble ahead.
Boys' Stages of Puberty
In boys, the following occurs:
- The penis and testicles get larger
- Pubic hair grows, then underarm and facial hair
- The voice deepens, often with breaking along the way
- The Adam's apple grows
- Testicles begin to product sperm
- Nighttime ejaculations, or "wet dreams" may occur
Boys will also experience a growth spurt for height during puberty, although this is typically later than their female counterparts. The AAFP notes that many boys worry about their growth compared to their peers. Even if your son is shorter than his friends, as long as his rate of growth is steady, puberty is progressing as it should. Talk to your physician if you (or your son) have any worries about his height.
Puberty: The Bottom Line
Don't wait for your tween to ask questions about puberty, because that may never happen. Adolescence can be a confusing time, and you can make your child's life less stressful and anxiety-provoking with discussions about puberty.
Video: Talking about puberty - Akron Children's Hospital video
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