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Puberty

Puberty; health; young; people; period; breast; wet; dream; physical; changes; menstruation; sexual; hormones; growth; genitals; body; odour; penis; testicles; voice; ejaculation; semen; erection; vagina; emotion; mood; peer; pressure;

Contents

Puberty is the time in our lives when our sexual reproductive organs mature. This means our bodies become capable of having babies.

Long before any outward changes happen, special hormones begin to be produced inside the bodies of both girls and boys. Hormones are substances in our bodies that affect many different things, including our sexual development and our growth.

Puberty often begins at about 10 years of age, but you can't see any outward signs yet. Physical changes become more obvious at about 13 - 16 for most boys, and about 11 - 14 for most girls. Along with the physical changes come emotional changes. We also start to think differently at this time in our lives. All in all, there are quite a few major changes to deal with during puberty.

Physical changes: general

Questions young people ask us about puberty.

"What age does puberty come?" 13 year old boy.

  • There is a wide variation in this. The first signs of puberty in a boy can show anytime from 9 to 15 years of age starting with a growth spurt in height. Later the testicles and penis begin to grow larger. In girls the first sign of puberty is often the beginning of breast growth and a growth spurt which can happen anytime from 8 - 14 years of age.

"How can you tell if you're going through puberty?" 13 year old student.

  • Puberty begins in our bodies when the special hormones begin to be produced. At this stage you wouldn't know anything was changing because nothing seems different on the outside. Later, some of the signs that you are going through puberty include a growth spurt, changes to genitals, changes to breasts, oily skin as well as growing body hair. Read the rest of this topic to find out more information about puberty.

"Should you be embarrassed if you have hairs under your arms at an early age?" 12 year old student.

  • No one should be embarrassed about any of these changes but people going through puberty earlier than their friends may feel embarrassed or possibly very pleased by these signs that they are becoming an adult. You'll mature when the time is right for you. If kids at school are teasing you, make light of it, but if it becomes upsetting or you feel that you're being harassed, talk to your teacher or school counsellor.

Some changes

  • We have a growth spurt. We get taller and put on weight.
  • Our skin becomes oilier, and many people get some acne. See our topic on 'Acne'.
  • Hair can become oilier and you may want to wash it more often.
  • Sweat glands become more active and make sweat which smells different from the sweat children's bodies make. This can mean "body odour". To reduce the smell wash daily and use a deodorant. Have a look at the topic 'Sweating and body odour'.

Boys: physical changes

  • You'll get taller and stronger and start to develop greater muscle mass.
  • Your testicles and penis size increase. It's common and normal for one testicle to be bigger than the other. Some young men worry about their penis size, however sexual functioning, including the ability to make love and to father children, does not depend on penis size. If you're worried, have a chat to a doctor or health professional.
  • Body hair begins to grow around the pubic area, on legs, under arms and on the face. The hair starts off fine and becomes coarser and darker over the years of puberty. Some men continue to grow a bit and develop more body hair right up into their twenties.
  • In puberty the voice becomes deeper, sometimes called "voice breaking" because of the ups and downs in tones.
  • "Nocturnal emissions" or wet dreams can happen in your sleep. Wet dreams are an ejaculation of semen - not urine - that has dampened your sheets. This is a normal part of growing up.
  • Sometimes erections can happen because you're nervous or excited, or just for no reason at all and can make you feel embarrassed. Other people usually don't notice them as much you do and they go away within a few minutes.
  • Some boys' breasts may grow slightly or feel tender. This is normal and is a reaction to hormones in the body. This will go away. (See the topic 'Gynecomastia (Male breasts)')
  • Did you know that older men who smoke may have trouble keeping an erection?  This is because the blood vessels in the penis are damaged. For more information see our topic Cigarettes and smoking.

Girls: physical changes

  • You'll grow taller, hips widen and your body becomes curvier.
  • Breasts begin to form; the first stage is called "budding". The breasts are sometimes different sizes. This is normal. If you are worried, see a doctor or other health professional.
  • Hair begins to grow around the pubic area and underarms, while hair on the legs and arms darkens.
  • You may start to get a whitish discharge from the vagina. This is normal so long as there is no pain or itching around or in the vagina.  If there is itching or pain, check with your doctor as some young women get an infection called vaginal thrush.  This is not common during puberty.
  • Menstrual periods often start around 12 months after the first physical signs of puberty. See the topics 'Periods - the facts' and 'Periods - what to do' for more information.  

Emotional changes

Although puberty refers to the physical changes of the body becoming sexually mature and ready to reproduce (have babies), there are also a lot of emotional changes at this time. This happens for a several reasons.

  • Young people have to deal with rapid physical change - all of a sudden you have a new body shape and size and you can begin to feel self-conscious about how you look.
    • You can sometimes feel embarrassed if you look and feel different to your friends.
    • Other people may start to respond to you differently. puberty
    • You look older and may be treated as an older person.
  • It can be difficult to cope with early physical changes or it can be frustrating waiting for physical changes to happen. There are as many different situations as there are people, but here are some examples.
    • A 12-year-old female has physically matured into a young woman. Suddenly she is getting a lot of attention from a 17-year-old male who is interested in her sexually. He is treating her older than she is because she looks older. Her early physical maturity means she is being forced to deal with a difficult grown-up situation.
    • A 16-year-old male is still short, has a squeaky voice compared to his friends, and is quite small physically. He may feel frustrated that his friends are all maturing while he looks younger than his years. Twelve months later he has been through a rapid growth spurt and "caught up" with his friends.
  • The rapid and abrupt release of hormones into your body can bring about extremes in emotions and mood. It's a temporary imbalance and will settle down.
    • Your parents might complain about your moods but it's not the real you, just those wild hormones affecting the way you feel.
    • However, you are the person who is responsible for what you say and do and you will need to control your behaviour. This may be difficult for you because of hormonal changes, but you do need to be in charge of yourself.
  • The fast physical growth and other changes in your body can give you seesaw periods of boundless energy then extreme tiredness.

Your thinking

The way you think changes around this time. You're starting to choose your own standards and ideals, to form your own ideas, morals and values and rely less on your parents for knowledge about life and the world. You may be starting to think about some deep questions like "who am I?", "why am I here?" or "what is the meaning of life?"

You're developing your own identity as an individual rather than as a part of the family. This could mean showing your parents or the world that you have very different individual tastes through your personal style. Some young people choose to do this in wild ways while others take a more subtle approach.

You may be wanting more independence, while on the other hand, not wanting to give up the support of your parents just yet.

  • This can mean that one minute you feel quite adult and the next you're feeling like a child again.
  • It may mean that you act impulsively at times and engage in some risk taking behaviour.
  • Parents sometimes worry quite a lot when you want to go out on your own and do things independently.
    • Parents have this protective thing going on where they don't want their children to come to any harm.
    • They may either know first hand or have heard of some people who take advantage of young people.
    • They're probably quite aware of the risks that some young people take (they may have done it once themselves).
    • What this means is that there can be a conflict between parents who want their child safe (at home?) and a young person who wants his or her independence (going out?).
    • Try and sit down and work it out with your parents calmly working out safety plans together.
  • Have a look at our topic on 'Relationships with parents'

Peer pressure

  • Around the time of puberty many young people feel very strongly that they want to be like all their friends.
  • Peer groups are friendship groups, which can have supportive, positive influences on all the people in that group.
  • Peer group pressure can be a positive or negative influence on the behaviour of the people in the group.
  • Adults often use the words "peer group pressure" in reference only to the negative influences.
  • Unfortunately the anxiety parents feel about peer groups is supported by what people do, eg most smokers start smoking around the time of puberty (see the topics 'Peer pressure' and 'Cigarettes and smoking'.

Getting through puberty

Puberty can be an unsettling time. It can also be an exciting time as you move through from childhood to adulthood and take on all the rights and responsibilities of adulthood.

Puberty can be difficult both for parents and young people as you adjust to the changes. Everyone needs to have patience. Parents are learning too.

  • If there are disagreements, listen to what they have to say and let them know your point of view.
  • Show them that you can take care of yourself in a mature and wise fashion.
  • Letting them know where you are and letting them know if you have a change of plans are examples of what you can do to show your parents you are acting responsibly and safely.
  • By handling situations with them calmly and maturely, they'll come to realise your capabilities in looking after yourself.

Use relaxation strategies or exercise to get you through the stressful times when those hormones won't leave you alone (see the topic Stress and relaxation).

If you're worried about any aspects of your development have a talk to your doctor or another health professional. Individuals develop at different rates and the range of normal is very wide.

Early and late puberty

People are different so they can have different experiences of puberty. Some people go though puberty early, and some go though it late. This is almost always normal.

But with early and late puberty sometimes people can find it really tough. When you experience puberty at a different time to your peers it can make you feel and look different. Sometimes people use this as an opportunity to pay you out or bully you.

People who experience late puberty can feel like they need to hide this from friends. Guys for example might feel embarrassed about taking their shirt off in the changing rooms because they don’t have much hair on their upper body. People can also avoid relationships due to late development. 

People who experience early puberty don’t necessarily have it all good either. Studies show early developers can have higher rates of physical violence and victimisation, being used and picked on. The study suggests that its not necessarily puberty that is the problem, it’s the fact that the young people end up socialising early with older people before they are ready.

Experiencing puberty at a different time can make you feel embarrassed and make it hard to talk to others about it. But talking is usually the best thing you can do. Talking to your doctor would be a good idea to make sure that everything is developing normally. Check out our topic Counselling to find out about getting support.

Resources

South Australia

  • The Second Story Youth Health Service (TSS)
    - Central: 57 Hyde St, Adelaide
    - South: 50a Beach Rd, Christies Beach
    - North: 6 Gillingham Rd, Elizabeth
    - West: 51 Bower St, Woodville
  • Youth Health line 1300 13 17 19 - weekdays 9am to 5pm
  • Your family doctor.
  • Your local community health centre.

General

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
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