What is puberty?
Puberty is the physical process of changing from a child to an adult. It obviously affects the sexual organs, but the whole body is involved as the adolescent changes shape and size, sometimes in a remarkably short space of time.
In boys the process starts at around nine to 12 years old, as hormones, chiefly testosterone, are produced in quantity. The first sign of puberty is often a dramatic growth spurt. Over the next 5 years or so your son will find his sexual organs grow considerably, his voice breaks (deepens to adult pitch) and he starts to grow pubic, underarm and, later, chest and facial hair. More generally, his whole body will change shape, usually his hands and feet first, until by about 18 years old he will look like an adult and have reached his full height.
In girls, too, the process starts at around the same age as they start to produce the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. Over the next five years or so your daughter will develop breasts, start her periods and begin to grow pubic, underarm and leg hair, and more generally will develop her adult shape.
What problems can arise?
The ages and sequences vary between individuals, but for most children they occur within a couple of years either side of the ages listed. Children’s development often follows their parents. If you developed puberty late or early, so might your child. Problems most commonly relate to puberty being either early (‘precocious’), or late (delayed).
* Precocious puberty: refers to the onset of puberty before the age of nine (girls) or 10 (boys). It is a relatively common condition, mostly affecting girls. Medical investigations are usually straightforward (often just a blood test to check hormone levels) and confirm that the normal process is underway, but earlier than for most children. Problems are usually social, as children feel embarrassed and conspicuous among their peers (for example, a girl at primary school may feel awkward at changing for games in a mixed classroom, especially if she is menstruating), but can be minimised with sensitive handling.
* Delayed puberty: this is a frequent problem, which affects more boys than girls. As with precocious puberty, blood tests are used to check hormone levels. Abnormalities are rarely revealed, and permanent problems are relatively unusual. If necessary, a few months’ dose of appropriate hormones is usually effective in initiating puberty. Delayed puberty can cause teenagers great distress as they compare themselves with their peers. Sex hormones work on the brain as well as the body, so emotional and intellectual immaturity are often noticeable in these teenagers.
Sex education should have begun at an early age, at the level your child can cope with, but now they have reached puberty you should check that they understand about pregnancy, contraception, and sexually transmitted diseases. If the subject embarrasses you, there are various books that can help. Do not rely on your child’s school or others to tell them about such an important subject.
It is illegal for a man to have sexual intercourse with a girl until she has reached the age of 16 (the age of consent). Although many teenagers wait until at least 16 before they start having sex, it would be unrealistic to assume that all do so. It is important that no girl, or indeed boy, feels pressured into having sex before they are really ready and before they really know what they are doing. When they do have sex, though, it is vital that they use appropriate contraception. Remember that, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to become pregnant before menstruation starts or the first time sexual intercourse takes place. Condoms are especially useful as they help protect against sexually transmitted diseases. If a girl does become pregnant, there are various options open, all of which need careful consideration. Your attitude and the support you offer are very significant factors.
What about emotions?
Puberty and adolescence are notorious for being a battle zone, and you will probably sometimes feel that you are in constant conflict with your teenager. They are struggling to develop their independence and their own identity. You can help by:
* Respecting their privacy. If you are worried about sex or drugs, by all means talk to them and make sure they have enough reliable information, but try not to pry.
* Respecting their right to be themselves. You may not agree with the clothes or friends they choose, but your teenager’s life is their own. You have the right to be firm about some issues, such as those of personal safety (e.g. ring home if they are going to be out late, never accept lifts if the driver has been drinking etc), but try to leave other things to their own judgement. If they don’t hand in their homework, or if they spend all their allowance on a jacket, they will learn from the consequences.
*Recognising that this is a very difficult time. Your teenager is in a body he or she barely recognises, feeling unaccustomed emotions and having to cope with pressure from all sorts of directions. The more they feel able to talk to you about it all, the better. Try to let them talk on their own terms, rather than you giving them your opinion or advice unasked.