Introduction to Puberty
It's time for "The Talk." Just thinking about childhood conversations with your own parents about sex, bodily change, or other similarly uncomfortable subjects may cause you to cringe! While puberty is an awkward time, conversations about the changes that occur during puberty do not necessarily have to be uncomfortable for children or their parents. This article provides an overview of puberty and the physical, mental, emotional and social changes that occur during this time. Armed with this information, parents can better prepare themselves to help their children cope with these inevitable and sometimes intimidating transformations.
Definition of Puberty
It is important to first define what exactly puberty is before going on to discuss the effects of puberty on youth. Puberty refers to a set of changes that children go through as they develop a sexually mature adult body. While these changes are primarily physical in nature, profound mental, emotional and social changes also occur as youth adapt to their maturing bodies.
Each child is unique, and will experience puberty-related changes at different times, and at different rates. Generally, girls will experience puberty between ages 10 and 14 years. However, they may experience puberty any time between age 8 and 15 and still be considered developmentally normal. Boys' puberty begins slightly later than girls'. On average, boys experience puberty between the ages of 11 and 15 years, but they may experience it anywhere between the ages of 9 and 17 years. Variations in children's experience of puberty are a part of the larger pattern of normal individual variation characteristic of all phases of child development.
The process and experience of puberty is different for boys than it is for girls. These differences will be explored in separate sections of this document.
Onset of Puberty
Biologically, puberty begins when the brain signals the release of certain hormones into the bloodstream. This process involves several steps and the coordination of two distinct parts of the brain: the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland that it is time to release a set of hormones called the gonadotropins into the bloodstream. Once released, the gonadotropins activate the gonads, or sexual glands. The gonads are the testes in boys and the ovaries in girls. Once activated, gonads produce and release hormones into the bloodstream that trigger physical changes throughout the body. In males, the testes produce hormones called androgens, and in females, the ovaries produce hormones called estrogens.
Various factors influence when the hormonal signals triggering puberty are initiated. Body fat composition is a major factor that influences the onset of puberty. Larger or obese youth may experience puberty earlier, while highly athletic or smaller children may experience puberty later. Hereditary may also be a factor, but environmental factors like quality of diet, activity levels seem to play a larger role. Some scientists have noted that during the past several decades, females' menarche (the onset of a woman's monthly period) has been occurring at younger ages. Though the cause of this earlier menarche is not completely understood, current evidence suggests that the pervasive use of hormone additives in commercial food supplies and livestock feed, and residual hormones and hormone-like environmental pollutants play an important role.