What is puberty? Your biggest questions answered

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi
Understanding puberty
Puberty can be a challenging time for children, with so many changes to get used to. Here’s what to expect during puberty and how to support young people through the change

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Puberty is when a child’s body begins to change and develop. During this process, they reach sexual maturity, which is when they become capable of reproduction. It usually happens between 8-13 years in females and 9-14 years in males.

Puberty comes with lots of emotional, hormonal and physical changes – like developing breasts and pubic hair – and is different for everyone. It can be a tough time to navigate, but this guide will help you understand the changes and how to support a child going through puberty.

What happens during puberty?

Puberty is the process a child goes through as their body starts to develop. The physical and psychological changes of puberty happen gradually over time and can last throughout the teenage years.

Puberty begins when part of our brain (the hypothalamus) starts signalling to the rest of the body that it’s time to develop adult characteristics. These signals are sent through hormones and cause the following parts of the body to grow and change:

  • External reproductive organs
  • Breast tissue
  • Skin
  • Muscles
  • Bones
  • Hair
  • Brain

What are the key signs of puberty?

For girls, signs of puberty include developing breasts and starting their periods. The first signs for boys will be developing a larger penis and testicles, a deeper voice and a more muscular appearance.

A child’s skin and hair often becomes oily and they will start to produce more sweat. This can cause many teenagers to develop some form of acne. The significant change in hormones will also affect the child’s thoughts and feelings, which can lead to heightened emotions, mood swings, the start of sexual thoughts and romantic attraction towards others.

If a child doesn’t start puberty around the average age, it’s usually nothing to worry about. But you can speak to a GP for advice if puberty begins before the age of 8 or hasn’t started by the age of 14.

What are the stages of puberty for females?

The first stage of puberty in girls tends to be the forming of breast buds – a small amount of firm tissue underneath the nipple. Usually, periods will begin around 2 years after breasts develop and sometimes girls will notice symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

This is due to a natural variation in hormone levels during the menstrual cycle. Other stages of puberty in girls include pubic hair, vaginal discharge, body odour and physical body changes like wider hips.

What are the stages of puberty for males?

For boys, the first stage of puberty tends to be the growth of the testicles and penis. The scrotum (skin around the testicles) will also become thinner and redder.

Other stages of puberty will usually follow, including the growth of body hair on the face, chest, armpits, back and pubic area. As the voice box grows, the voice will start to get lower and deeper – known as a voice ‘breaking’. This development causes the Adam’s apple to become more visible too. Boys will develop a broader chest and shoulders, and many will experience growth spurts.

During this process, the amount of body fat will typically drop as muscle develops. Due to the rise in sex hormones, boys can start having involuntary erections and wet dreams (ejaculation while sleeping).

How does it feel to go through puberty?

With so many significant changes, puberty can be physically, mentally and emotionally challenging. It’s important to remember that everyone develops differently during this time, and there’s no normal for reaching each stage of development.

Talking openly to friends, siblings and trusted adults can really help children to navigate this period of life and build their self-esteem.

What’s the difference between puberty and sexual maturity?

While the process of puberty involves more than just the reproductive organs, sexual maturity refers to the specific developmental stage that makes it possible for a person to reproduce.

This maturing of the reproductive organs also coincides with when a person might start to explore their sexuality and identity. Each person’s experience is unique. Not everyone will experience a physical attraction towards others, and this is nothing to worry about either. For some people, this can happen at a later stage.

What is precocious puberty (early puberty)?

Early puberty, also known as precocious puberty, happens when girls have signs of puberty before the age of 8, and boys have signs of puberty before the age of 9.

Certain signs of puberty can also appear much earlier than others. For example, girls may start their periods at the age of 8 before developing breasts.

The cause of early puberty isn’t always clear, but it can run in families or be caused by a medical condition. Early puberty is more likely to affect girls. It is important to speak to a doctor if your child goes through early puberty or you’re concerned.

What is delayed puberty?

Delayed puberty can also affect children. For boys, this is when they have no signs of testicular development by the age of 14. For girls, it’s when they have not developed breasts by the age of 13 or started their period by the age of 15.

It's not always clear what causes delayed puberty either, although it’s more likely to affect boys. Occasionally, it can be caused by a long-term illness or medical condition. A doctor will be able to help if this is the case.

When should I speak to a doctor?

It’s important to remember that everyone develops differently during puberty, and there’s no normal age for reaching each stage of development.

If you have any concerns about your child’s experience of puberty, a GP can help.

Similarly, if you’re concerned about precocious puberty or delayed puberty, a doctor can provide medical advice and arrange any necessary tests.

This article has been medically approved by Livi Lead GP, Dr Bryony Henderson.

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