Puberty: How Your Kids Are Growing and Changing

preteen girls smiling

Pimples. Budding breasts. Emotional outbursts. Yes, these are the typical signs of puberty and a signal that your kids are growing and changing. The general age range during which most kids enter puberty is somewhere between ages nine and 12, though some experts say our kids are entering puberty earlier than in previous generations did.

As you know, "puberty" is when girls and boys go through the transformation to sexual maturity. For girls, initial signs include breasts enlarging and pubic hair growth. Girls typically begin having their period (menstrual cycle) between ages 10-12. For boys, puberty often shows up in the form of larger testes and sperm production.

Does it seem like your kids or their friends are starting puberty sooner than they did in your generation?

Why Is This Happening Now?

Recent studies at top U.S. medical institutions have found that puberty is appearing earlier among our younger generation-as soon as age seven in some cases. But does anyone really know why puberty may happen early for your child? No one can actually pinpoint why puberty tends to occur sooner these days for many boys and girls.

teen boys

Some experts say that earlier puberty may be related to something in the environment or additives and hormones in our food, while others blame it on more fat in the diet and a general trend towards early obesity. There has not been enough research on the link between puberty and childhood obesity in girls or boys. Some studies find that girls who are obese tend to start developing breasts early. Other research shows that an overabundance of estrogen may be a reason for delayed puberty in obese boys.

Did you know that in the early 1900s, the "normal" age for a girl's menstrual cycle to start was 15? This fell to age 12-1/2 years by the 1990s. Puberty now begins on average between ages 10 to 14 in girls. Boys are entering puberty about six months to two years sooner than in the past-around 12 to 16 years old.

Recent studies have also found that race appears to influence when a child may enter puberty. Studies show that African American females tend to first experience breast development at roughly eight years old. Hispanic and White girls tend to experience this stage nearly a year later. African American males are now experiencing the start of puberty at roughly nine years of age, while White and Hispanic boys do so about a year later.

Clearly, there are no solid answers as to why our children may be entering puberty sooner than we did, and there is more work to be done in this field. It is important to note, though, that even though some boys and girls are entering puberty earlier, they tend to reach the final stages--their full sexual maturity--at the same age as their peers, or as their parents did in the past. So, it may be comforting to know that your pubescent children won't be fully developed men and women in grammar school!

Whether your kids enter puberty at the typical age or a bit earlier, what can you do to make the arrival of this "awkward stage" easier on them?

Helping Your Kids through Puberty

As a parent, you want to help your kids be prepared for this important stage in life. Your kids will need your support and encouragement, especially if puberty comes early. By being there for your children at this crucial stage, you can make a difference in helping them maintain their self-esteem and keeping a positive attitude about their bodies through all the changes.

As girls develop, it can sometimes negatively affect their self-esteem, promote eating disorders, or contribute to depression, according to Developing boys may show "risky behaviors." Parents need to make sure their children know that they are loved, supported, and understood by their parents.

mother hugging sad teen daughter

Maintaining Perspective and Patience

Keep an eye on the future. Remember, even if your children enter puberty earlier than their peers, rest-assured that all kids eventually will go through it. Here are some facts to be aware of to help you all get through this:

  • Kids may struggle when they enter puberty, especially if they do so much earlier than their friends, but take comfort in the fact that everyone catches up in the end.

  • Do what you can to accommodate your child. For example, be sure your daughter carries a little carrying case with sanitary napkins and knows how to dispose of them discreetly.

  • Maintain good communication with teachers. Teachers can serve as your partner in helping your growing children maintain their self-confidence through an awkward stage.

Working through the Changes

Kids entering puberty might experience stress and anxiety. Parents can help a growing child cope with his or her changing body so they can feel good emotionally.

Different parents try different things with their developing kids; only you know your child and your family. For example, your developing daughter might start wearing baggy sweatshirts to hide her maturing body--and that may be okay with you. Her body might look 13, but the child inside is still 10, and not feeling ready for her body to change. Or, another daughter may be slower to develop physically but is acting like a teenager emotionally. So, whether your daughter needs to hide her body or stomp her feet more as she passes through certain emotional stages, then so be it.

Your developing son may seem to grow taller overnight and may start to get more body hair and a stronger body odor. He may need to be reminded to use deodorant or bathe more often, but remember to take a gentle approach with those reminders, as he may be more emotionally sensitive and moody, too. If a son is slower to grow and develop than his peers, remind him that he'll develop at his own pace, and that is okay.

Whether your children enter puberty earlier or later according to the updated timeline for this phase of life, how you handle this challenging stage of development as a parent can make all the difference for your kids.