Growing up is stressful enough for kids. When puberty arrives, it can add more stress and confusion in the form of unexpected (and maybe unwelcome) physical and emotional changes.
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“All children go through emotional changes during puberty,” says pediatrician Veronica Issac, MD. “Some are affected more than others as estrogen and progesterone cycle through their bodies.”
What is puberty?
Puberty is the stage of life that serves as a transition from childhood into adulthood. Your child’s body begins to develop and change due to hormonal fluctuations. As part of this, they’ll also go through the physical changes required to reach sexual maturity and be capable of reproduction.
Girls and those assigned female at birth (AFAB) generally begin and end puberty about a year earlier than boys and those assigned male at birth (AMAB) do. Typically, girls start puberty between the ages of 8 and 13.
However, Dr. Issac notes Black and Hispanic girls tend to start puberty earlier than white girls — at age 7 1/2 instead of 8.
Social and school pressures, when combined with hormonal and body changes, can cause your child to start acting differently. Moodiness, emotional outbursts and conflict with parents or siblings are common. You should share any behavioral concerns with your doctor. Hormonal therapy such as birth control medication can sometimes ease symptoms.
The 5 stages of puberty
While puberty timing differs for each child, Dr. Isaac says physical changes always take place in the same order.
“Doctors will use a tool called Tanner Staging to track progress,” she says.
In girls, this is what the five stages of puberty look like:
This is a prepubescent stage and no changes have occurred.
Between ages 8 and 13, girls typically experience the following:
- Their breasts begin to bud, and their areola (the pigmented area around the nipple) starts to enlarge.
- They develop a small amount of genital hair.
- At this stage, they experience a growth spurt of about 2 3/4 inches per year.
As girls move through this stage, typically between ages 9 and 14:
- Their breasts continue budding.
- Their pubic and underarm hair begins to grow. Expect genital hair to become coarser and a darker color, and start covering more of their genitals.
- They experience a growth spurt of more than 3 inches annually.
- Your child may also develop acne as their skin becomes oilier.
As girls go through this stage, usually between ages 10 and 15:
- Their breasts continue to grow, and their nipples start to protrude.
- The amount of body hair they have reaches adult levels.
- Height-wise, they may continue growing at the rate of about 2 3/4 inches per year.
- They may continue having problems with acne.
- They start to menstruate, or have a period. Periods typically start around age 12, or usually around the same age their mothers’ periods began. However, girls lacking body fat or who have disordered eating may start menstruating later.
Development typically ends at this stage, as this represents reaching physical adulthood. Most attain their peak height by age 16.
What age does puberty end?
Puberty typically ends anywhere from two to five years after it starts. Although some studies have shown that kids who start puberty earlier take longer to reach maturity, each child’s experience is different.
What is delayed puberty?
If your child starts puberty very late or doesn’t seem to be progressing through puberty, it’s worth mentioning to their doctor. “She may just be a late bloomer, especially if her mom was,” notes Dr. Issac.
However, it’s possible they might have hormonal or glandular problems. If your doctor suspects an underlying problem, they may refer your child to a specialist for testing.
Some girls experience what’s known as precocious (or early) puberty. Signs of this include:
- Showing signs of puberty before their 8th birthday.
- Changes to their body that progress very quickly.
- Body changes that occur out of order, such as starting to have periods before developing breasts.
If these happen, talk to your child’s doctor. Dr. Issac says simple testing can help determine the cause of early puberty. Common ones include:
- The pituitary gland, which kicks off puberty, may have “turned on” hormones too early.
- Your child may have been exposed to estrogen through something like estrogen cream.
- They may have a tumor on their adrenal gland or elsewhere.
If you’re worried that your child isn’t experiencing puberty in a typical way, talk to their doctor. They might opt to wait and monitor your child’s progress, or refer them to another doctor for tests. If needed, an endocrinologist can prescribe medication (such as a puberty blocker) to halt puberty until the appropriate time.