It’s hard to pinpoint an exact age for the onset of puberty, said Chandran. “We do know that girls enter puberty earlier than boys. If you go to a sixth grade class of 11- and 12-year-olds, you would see most of the girls are well into puberty,” she said. “And most of the boys are not.”
Girls usually notice their growing breasts as the first sign of puberty. They develop body hair, particularly in the pubic area, and go through growth spurts, have body odor, and finally get menstrual periods. Puberty in the physiological sense is complete when the girl gets her period.
In boys, puberty usually starts off as a growth spurt and manifests itself as an increase in the size of the testicles. When puberty ends in boys is less well-defined than in girls.
Changes are primarily due to hormonal developments in the body. Hormones like estrogen and testosterone that had been suppressed until now are released and flow through the children’s bodies in a complicated dance. Fine-tuning of the hormonal balances may take a few years. For example, girls’ periods may be very irregular for a couple of years after they begin.
Along with those physical changes come a number of psychological ones, said Horn. Challenges and tensions extend over time, and “some of the issues of adolescence will occur before, during and after the onset of biological puberty,” he said.
And much of that time is uncomfortable. “It’s just hard having people notice that your body is changing,” said Chandran. “It feels like you’re in an odd situation — using deodorant, shaving hair, getting acne.”
And while the body of a child who’s gone through puberty may look a lot more like an adult’s, inside is still the mind of a child. Typically, “They don’t have the psychological ability to think in an abstract manner. They don’t understand consequences of actions,” said Chandran. “That can be a bigger problem than the hormones.”
For example, when your kid is out later than planned, and he never called home to tell you about the delay, as a parent you can’t understand why. It seems so obvious to you. But, said Vernon, “research shows that most adolescents don’t develop abstract thinking until later. If you ask, ‘Why didn’t you just call and let me know?” The answer ‘Well, I didn’t think about it,’ is, in many cases, a completely honest one.”
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