Sometimes our kids catch us by surprise. But luckily the start of puberty is not a surprise at all.
In fact, kids go through a predictable sequence of physical changes during puberty.
These changes have been studied by many researchers. One of the most well-known researchers is British pediatrician, James Tanner. He led a two-decade study documenting the physical changes of females during puberty. In 1969 he created a scale used to describe how puberty changes physical characteristics. This is widely known as the Tanner Scale or Tanner Stages.
Although kids may start and end puberty at different ages, generally all kids will go through the various stages that Dr. Tanner described. The Tanner Stages are often considered the “gold standard” for medical professionals that study puberty.
So when does puberty start?
During the ages of 9-11, the majority of kids will start Tanner Stage 2. This means that their bodies will start to show physical signs of sexual development.
First sign of puberty in girls
Developmentally speaking, girls usually get a head start on puberty. Hormones typically start sending signals to the body to prepare for the changes of puberty any time after 8 years old. These signals don’t produce any readily visible physical changes right off, but they’re setting the stage for a lot of changes to come.
The first sign of puberty for girls is between the ages of 9 and 11. Many girls will start to develop breast buds. These buds create a small mound right underneath the nipple. Sometimes one breast bud starts to develop and the other one is much too shy to come out of hiding. But don’t worry. Over time it’ll even out. It’s perfectly normal for the breasts to each develop on their own timetable.
These breast buds can feel tender and sometimes even itchy. The areola, the darker circle of skin around the nipple, may also start to get bigger.
Bras definitely come in handy around this time. Take your daughter bra shopping and enjoy sharing the wonder of having something strapped to your chest. Or you could go the route my older sisters did — they stitched a picture of a cute choo-choo train on a bra and gifted me my “training” bra for my birthday. (They thought it was hilarious…)
Your daughter will also be developing in other areas during this time. Small amounts of pubic hair will start to show on the labia, and the uterus will become a little bit bigger. Occasionally girls may have their first period during this stage, although periods generally start later.
This is a great time to make sure your daughter knows the correct names of her anatomy. It’s also a great time to talk to her about periods and what to do when her period starts.
First sign of puberty in boys
Boys often look younger than their female classmates around this age. That’s because boys don’t typically start developing until a few years later.
Around 11 years old, boys start to experience the physical changes of puberty. These changes are a bit more discreet, and many parents may not even know that their son is going through them. That’s why it’s important to understand what’s happening so you can ask your son smart questions about his changing body.
The first sign of puberty in boys is when the testicles and the scrotum start to get bigger. The penis remains the same size at this stage. Boys will also start to develop small amounts of pubic hair on the base of the penis.
With all of these changes happening to the genitals, it’s a great time to make sure your son is educated on the correct names of his anatomy.
Sexual growth during puberty
The following information describes sexual development that may happen any time between the ages of eight and twelve.
Nine to eleven-year-olds MAY…
- Want and need privacy.
- Become more curious about adult male and female bodies — they may want to see these bodies naked.
- Develop crushes on peers or people of influence (teachers, coaches, celebrities).
- Begin to be sexually attracted to peers.
- Want to have a boyfriend or girlfriend.
- Feel pressure to conform to normal gender roles and perceived appropriate behaviors.
- Experience the physical changes of puberty (particularly menstruation and wet dreams).
- Gain basic sexual knowledge about puberty, intercourse, pregnancy, and childbirth.
- Compare themselves to others — they wonder if they are normal.
- Begin to have a sexual orientation.
- Watch media or listen to songs with sexual content.
- Use the internet to communicate with others (chatting, social media).
- Masturbate to a more adult type orgasm, but generally in private.
- Use sexual language and explore sexual fantasies.
Puberty is not just about physical changes
Sexual growth is not just about your child’s physical development. It changes the way kids think, feel, interact with others and experience their world.
The start of puberty also includes sexual-related knowledge, sexual beliefs, and sexual behaviors. All of these things are influenced in a variety of ways. When kids watch family members or friends behave in sexual ways, what message do they come home with? Do magazines, movies, books, combine popularity or attention with sexual appeal?
Kids these days are being exposed to really strong sexual messages. The problem is that these messages are making an already vulnerable population a lot more vulnerable.
Are we paying attention to the messages they’re receiving? And how often do we have casual conversations about these messages?
There’s a lot of misinformation out there. And when kids are so eager to figure out who they are and where they fit in, they miss a lot of big road signs along the way that would have helped their journey. We need to step in and offer perspective.
Put yourself in your kid’s shoes for a minute. If you didn’t know much about sexuality, where would you be getting the most information? Friends? Family? YouTube, music videos, Google and movies?
How parents can encourage positive sexual growth
- Respect their child’s desire for privacy.
- Recognize their child innocently gives many opportunities in daily conversation to learn about the birds and bees.
- Educate their child on what to expect during puberty and how to cope with these changes.
- Help their child develop strong communication and decision making skills.
- Identify and share family values about sexual behaviors and relationships.
- Model appropriate behavior, including healthy interactions within relationships.
- Answer their child’s questions without judgment.
- Find parent approved resources like books and websites that their child can look at for information.
- Check in regularly with their child about sexual behaviors since many of these behaviors may be explored privately.
- Recognize that exposure to sexual material through media, even in supposedly family and kid-friendly media, can have a strong impact on a child’s behavior.
- Routinely check in on play dates with friends and interactions between siblings.
- Set rules for appropriate technology use and educate children on technology safety.
- Recognize that most children are naturally curious about sexuality.
- Teach their child how to identify risky social situations.
- Communicate that pictures of private body parts should never be shared, even if someone asks for them.
- Educate their kids on the negative effects of pornography.
According to the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth, “A small but significant number (about 7 to 10 percent) of children are involved in more explicit sexual activity, including sexual intercourse, by the age of 13.”
- Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). “What is Normal Childhood Sexual Development?” Families are Talking, vol. 3, no. 4, 2015, https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/FAT_Newsletter_V3N4-Normal-Childhood-Sexual-Development.pdf.
- National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth (NCSBY). https://www.ncsby.org/content/childhood-sexual-development#link2. Accessed 20 May 2021.
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). “Sexual Development and Behavior in Children.” https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/sexual_development_and_behavior_in_children.pdf.