It is your daughter’s 12th birthday and you along with the family and a few of her friends are celebrating this special occasion. You are excited for your daughter. It appears she has been especially looking forward to turning 12. Perhaps it’s because the birthday brings her close the teen years.

This 12th birthday has been of particular interest for you, as you read something about menarche, the first menstrual period, beginning around this time. You have noticed some bodily changes in your daughter and have begun the puberty talk, but still, is this really happening? Already?

You have noticed that you need to buy jeans in a longer length for your son as you realize he is getting taller. And you have noticed a crackle in his voice. You also know that he mentioned to his Dad some changes “down there,” alluding to his private parts. Could it be… your baby boy is on his way to becoming a man?

As parents, we attempt to protect our children from everything, even growing up. Perhaps that is why it is so difficult for us to face the truth unfolding before our eyes. But, is the seemingly early occurrence of puberty really early? According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, girls may enter puberty as early as 8 years with a usual age of 11, and boys begin around 12, but may start as early as 9 years.

Puberty is recognized as a stage in life between childhood and maturity. During this stage, physiological changes occur with boys and girls. Basically, physical growth and sexual maturation occurs, enabling sexual reproduction.

Also according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the first sign of puberty for girls is breast growth; boys, however, experience a growth spurt.

Signs of Puberty

  • Breast development— begins with tender lump, and one breast may be larger than the other for a short period of time.
  • Growth spurt— arms, legs, hands and feet may temporarily grow faster than the rest of the body.
  • Hair development— hair grows in the pubic area, under the arms and on the legs. For boys, chest and facial hair may develop during puberty or much later.
  • Voice— begins to crack and then becomes deeper.
  • Body shape— hips widen, waist becomes smaller, shape becomes more curvy due to a build-up of fat in the stomach, buttocks and legs.
  • Body size— there is an increase in stature, shoulders broaden, weight gain occurs due to muscle development.
  • Skin— oiliness and sweating may happen more often, indicating that the related glands are growing. This also causes acne.
  • Menstruation— menarche, the first period, begins between 9 and 16 years of age.
  • Reproductive organs— the penis and testes will get larger and begin to produce sperm.

The American Academy of Family Physicians advises parents that children have different patterns of sexual development. Some girls may develop breasts at a young age while other girls show no signs of sexual development. Some children develop body hair, but show no other signs of sexual growth. These differences do not necessarily mean there is a problem, though a doctor’s visit is encouraged.

Early puberty is defined by the American Academy of Family Physicians as the development of breast and pubic hair before 8 years of age for girls and an increase in testicle size and penis length before 9 years of age boys. Early puberty is also called precocious or premature puberty.

Puberty may also be delayed. The American Academy of Family Physicians defines this in girls as no development of breast tissue by age 14, or there is no occurrence of periods for five or more years after the fist appearance of breast tissue. For boys, there is no testicle development by age 14 or the development of the male organs is not complete after five years from when they begin to develop.

There may be several causes for early and late puberty, such as genetic factors or some physiological interference. According to the Mayo Clinic, precocious puberty may be the result of a tumor, infection, injury or defect in the brain.

Any concerns that you have about your child’s development should be addressed with your family physician.

Preparing for Puberty

Knowing what is happening during puberty is essential to a child’s pubescent development. Additionally, preparing for the adjustment to these changes is key. Parents play a vital role in helping to make puberty a positive time. There are several ways that parents may offer guidance.

  1. Give factual information about the changes occurring with your child’s body. Be forthcoming because you are not protecting your child by not disclosing what he or she needs to know. Make sure you use the correct physiological names for the body parts.
  2. Provide information about these changes in a timely manner, especially regarding menarche. The specific age to begin talking to your child depends on when he or she begins to show signs of maturation. Also, with children who experience late puberty, you should consider that they will be in the company of those who have an onset of early puberty. Ensure that you, the parent, are providing the information about puberty— not your child’s friends.
  3. Validate feelings. Consider awkwardness as normal and share your own experiences of adolescence and body changes.
  4. Have a series of talks. It is difficult, if not impossible, to give all of the information about bodily changes along and the social and emotional challenges in one discussion. Continue the puberty discussions as your child ages and matures.
  5. Respect the Rs. Remember, Realize, and give Recognition to puberty as another milestone in your child’s life, just as you did with other milestones. Remember, you child’s self-esteem is significantly influenced by how he or she deals with puberty.
  6. Seek medical care to address follow-up questions and areas of concern. Consider counseling if this is an especially difficult time for your child.

Adolescence may present a tumultuous period in a young person’s life because of the changes that occur. Speaking to your child about this stage and opening the doors of communication generally allows your child to cope with puberty with piece of mind and a confident sense of self.

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