What you need to know about puberty
Suddenly they’re there: pimples, moustache fuzz or breasts – puberty has arrived! But it’s not just the body that changes during this time. New feelings also throw family and friendships into turmoil. Discover all about this exciting phase of life.
What typically happens during puberty?
Puberty is a time of radical reorganisation: the body and psyche change more drastically in this phase of life than in any other. Arguments with parents, melancholy, the first overwhelming crushes and a completely new body image – most people have to go through this when growing up. It’s an exciting and intense time – and also extremely stressful for everyone involved. But why is this? What happens to the body when we grow up? Here are the most important facts on the subject.
Why do we go through puberty?
During puberty, girls turn into women and boys into men. Incidentally, the term comes from Latin and means “manhood”. This means that a person matures from a child to an adult over a number of years. The biological goal is to become sexually mature and capable of procreating in order to produce children.
A springboard to sexuality: When does puberty begin? And when is it over?
The exact age that children reach puberty depends on various factors – such as their disposition, their diet and their overall health. Normally, the first physical changes in girls in this part of the world begin at around 9 to 10 years of age and end at 16 to 18 years of age. The psyche often needs one, two or three years longer to adapt. Boys are known to be a little later: their bodies begin to change at around 10 to 14 years of age. The physical process is then complete at around 17 or 19. But beware: the figures vary greatly depending on the source and are only rough guidelines. The speed of development varies from person to person.
The onset of puberty probably also depends on body weight and fat content, among other things. There seems to be a threshold at which certain processes in the body, such as hormonal changes, are triggered. For example, girls with a higher body mass index (BMI) tend to menstruate earlier than their very thin peers, and their breasts also start to grow earlier.
Origin also plays a role. Puberty tends to begin earlier in African-American and Hispanic women than in Asian and white women. Studies also show that the time of the first menstrual period in Europe has shifted further and further forward since the 19th century: from the original 17 years (1850) to the current 12.5 years (since the 1960s). The first ejaculation also occurs earlier in young men today. Experts believe that this is due to more robust health among the population, a more balanced diet and better hygiene. However, hormone-active substances such as plasticisers and pesticides, which are ingested in small quantities from the environment, may also have contributed to this.
How do hormones affect puberty?
Everything starts in the head – or, to be more precise, in the hypothalamus. Why this thumbnail-sized area of the brain suddenly starts sending signals or hormones at a certain point to stimulate the production of sex hormones in the body is not yet fully understood. However, from this point onwards, it is mainly testosterone that is produced in boys and oestrogen and progesterone in girls. In turn, the increase in sex hormones gradually causes visible and invisible changes in the body.
Maturing too early – puberty during kindergarten?
Some children develop breasts, body odour and experience emotional ups and downs as early as kindergarten or first grade. This might not sound tragic at first, but if the growth spurt starts before the age of eight for girls and before the age of nine for boys, it ends too early – and the children may never reach their normal size. What’s more, it’s emotionally stressful for a girl to have the body of a woman when her head is still half-buried in the sandpit. Parents should seek early advice from a doctor to find out whether hormone therapy is an option to delay puberty for a while. In most cases, it’s not possible to identify the cause of the early onset of puberty.
What if puberty doesn’t want to start?
It’s also common for puberty to bide its time. If girls show no signs of physical change beyond their 14th birthday and boys beyond their 16th birthday, this is referred to as delayed puberty. This occurs slightly more often in boys than in girls. Parents should seek advice if development virtually stops or stops again for more than 18 months after it starts. It’s also atypical if a girl’s period does not start within five years of developing breasts.
The process: the three phases of puberty in boys and girls
There is a defined sequence to sexual development, which can roughly be divided into three phases that merge into one another and overlap. Exactly how quickly this happens, and when, varies.
As the primary school years slowly come to an end, the brain begins to produce more and more sex hormones, thus initiating the process of puberty. This first phase lasts around one to three years. It’s a time of physical development, but the psyche also begins to slowly undergo change. Some teenagers prefer to stay in their room, while others start to pick fights and rebel against their parents’ rules and boundaries.
Pubic and underarm hair sprout
Testicles and penis grow
The most intense and often stressful phase of puberty usually takes place between the ages of 12 and 16. This is when the brain matures. Adolescents learn to control their impulses, realistically evaluate impressions, keep their emotions in check and assess the consequences of their actions. But their physical development does not stand still either.
The female sexual organs develop
First period and sexual maturity
Voice change in boys
First ejaculation and sexual maturity
Body odour and skin change
Rollercoaster of emotions
Late puberty: welcome to adult life!
From around the age of 16, teenagers enter the final phase of puberty and their growth phases are now complete. Psychological developments now take place and, thankfully, family life becomes calmer and more harmonious again. The young adults have slowly separated themselves from their parents, become more self-confident and feel increasingly comfortable in their new skin. Fortunately, because this is the time when important decisions are often made, such as which career to pursue. Some people refer to this phase between puberty and adulthood as “adolescence” or “post-puberty”.
Parents and pubescent children
What can parents do? There aren’t many options. Showing a lot of understanding, giving them space and knowing that it will all pass are particularly important for parents at this time. Nevertheless, truancy, eating disorders, theft, substance abuse, depression and crime are particularly common during this phase. Families who are affected should seek professional help from a family counsellor, a doctor or a youth psychologist as soon as possible.
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