What is puberty?

Puberty refers to the hormonally driven process that allows a person to transition from sexual immaturity to sexual maturity, to allow a person to biologically produce offspring. There are many factors involved in when a child starts puberty, including family genetics and nutritional state (for example, if a person is under or overweight, pubertal timing may change). For most people, physical and emotional development during puberty starts in late childhood and takes several years. It is a period of rapid growth: 20% of a person’s adult height and 50% of their adult weight are acquired during puberty.

What are the first signs of puberty in girls?

Puberty for most girls starts between ages 8-13 years and lasts about 2-5 years. The first signs of pubertal onset include the appearance of pubic hair and breast changes: the area around the nipple starts to raise and can become darker. As these signs emerge, height begins to increase in a growth spurt that usually lasts for several years.

What are the first signs of puberty in boys?

Puberty for most boys starts between ages 9-14 years and lasts about 3-4 years. The first signs of pubertal onset include increased testicular size followed by lengthening of the penis and appearance of pubic hair. As these signs emerge, height begins to increase in a growth spurt that usually lasts several years.

When should I start talking to my child about his or her body?

Conversations about body parts and function should start during infancy; bodies are fascinating even for the youngest children and can be a source of great entertainment from an early age. While many people are more comfortable talking about body parts that will not change later with puberty (fingers and toes, for example), activities like breast feeding, peeing, and pooping can provide a natural starting point for conversations about these “private parts,” how they develop (i.e. why my body doesn’t look like your body), and what they do. As awkward as this may feel at first, it is easier to start the conversation early and keep it going throughout childhood rather than waiting to have “the talk” all at once after puberty is already underway.

Opportunities that allow children to ask questions, use correct anatomical terms, and clarify function can help parents and children practice talking about functions related to puberty before pubertal changes take place. It also helps establish adult support-people as safe and available for questions about body function—if a child understands they can ask questions, they will feel more comfortable doing so during puberty.

Tips for starting the conversation 

For very young children, bath time can be a natural place to talk about body parts. Name your child’s body parts as you bathe them, using correct anatomical terms. If you have a little more time in the bath, talk about what each body part does as you soap up. Toddler-age children can be great at brainstorming how different body parts help them move and function.

Toilet training introduces a natural opportunity to talk about the function and importance of a vagina or penis—what it does, how to take care of it, basic understanding of who should/should not be touching, etc.

For older children, you can use media (see resources below) to help start a discussion with your child. You can review the content together or make age-appropriate media available to your child to look at independently. Media can be a valuable support in facilitating discussions about body changes, puberty, and sexuality. However, if you give your child media content to review on their own, be sure to follow up later. Your interest in answering questions and hearing about his/her/their thoughts on the content will signal your availability to discuss these sensitive subjects in the future.

For children of all ages, be responsive when your child raises questions or notices differences between child and adult bodies—for example, if your child notices someone breast feeding, use it as an opportunity to talk about how breasts develop and function. Invite your child to ask questions as a way to “meet them where they are” in their understanding of the subject.

Using proper terminology

While it can be tempting to use non-anatomic terms with younger children, it is important to start from an early age with correct terminology for body parts. Using proper terms is a way to establish respect for the form and function associated with that body part, and correctly labeling the breasts, penis, and vagina places them on the same footing as other body parts that are typically correctly labeled (e.g. ears, legs, fingers).

What should my child and I discuss with their doctor about puberty?

Most primary care providers monitor pubertal progress at annual childhood visits. These visits present a great opportunity for children to ask questions about their development and what to expect with puberty. As a parent, encourage your child to ask questions about body function, pubertal change, and what to expect as they develop. As your child enters puberty, it is important to give her/him/them time alone with the medical provider. Alone-time gives your child the chance to ask questions and even confirm answers they may have gotten from other adults about body function.

Are there resources that can help me talk about puberty with my child?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has a range of resources available to parents and teens and provides a good place to start. Here are a few quick links to some of the AAP and other websites to help start and continue the conversation about puberty.

For more resources on children’s health and development, visit the Growing section of the Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Abigail A. Donaldson, MD

Dr. Abigail Donaldson is an adolescent medicine specialist with expertise in eating disorders and their treatment. She leads the team of providers in the Eating Disorder Program at Hasbro Children's Hospital.