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How to talk to your teen about puberty

Mother and daughter laughing on a couch
Reassurance, support and understanding are key when chatting with your teen.

Puberty is a big deal to your teen. As a parent you may remember your experience with puberty, both the physical and emotional changes, and now want to help your teenager understand what is happening to their body.

So, what are the best ways to explain these changes and how should you talk about them? Reassurance, support and understanding are key when chatting with your teen. Remember, not only is their body changing but the way they look at the world is also changing. We’ve listed some key steps you can take to help your teenager feel comfortable about their developing body.

What is puberty?

Knowing what puberty is and the changes that occur is an important step before having a conversation with your teen. Puberty, also known as adolescence, is the transitional period between childhood and adulthood. Your child will go through some significant changes including physical, psychological and emotional changes.

Physical changes aren’t always the first sign of puberty, so it can often be hard to tell when you child is experiencing the first stages. It usually happens around 10-11 years for girls and around 11-13 years for boys. This is when changes in your child’s brain starts to release sex hormones.

Puberty usually lasts 2.5 to 3 years but can sometimes take 5 years. At the end of the development your child will be sexually and reproductively mature, but not always emotionally mature.

Emotional and psychological changes in puberty

If you think back to your teenage years, you may remember feeling emotional, confused or, even angry. This is because a teenage brain is going through some major developmental changes. Teens will begin to have improved self-control, problem-solving and decision-making skills as they grow older, but their brain won’t fully develop until they are in their mid-twenties.

Physical changes in puberty

Physical changes can include; acne, clumsiness, weight gain, increased sleeping, sweating and hair growth. However, boys and girls differ in their physical changes.

What are the physical differences between girls and boys during puberty?

Girls can experience:

  • breast development is the first physical sign of puberty in girls. It’s normal for the breast to grow at different rates.
  • growth spurt and change in shape, her hips will widen.
  • growth of hair, underarm and pubic.
  • the start of menstruation or periods usually begins 2 to 2.5 years after the start of breast development. These may be irregular at first and may take up to 3 years to become regular
  • a clear or whitish vaginal discharge – this may occur before periods. Check with a GP if your daughter says she has any itching, pain or a strong odour.

Boys will experience:

  • enlargement of the testes (testicles) is the first physical sign of puberty in boys. Sometimes the testes may grow at different rates. It will be associated with growth and development of the penis.
  • growth spurts. He will get taller; his chest and shoulders will widen.
  • growth of pubic, underarm and facial hair
  • the start of testosterone production, which is necessary for the testes to produce sperm
  • the start of erections and ejaculation
  • growth of the larynx or voice box – the voice ‘breaks’ and eventually deepens.

You may find this animation on the reproductive cycle is a helpful explainer.

Father and son chatting on a basketball court

How to have the conversation

It’s not always easy to talk to your children about their bodies and, sometimes, their behaviour. There are ways to make the conversation easier, which will help both you and your child feel more comfortable.

Make sure you have the chat when your child is ready to listen. You may find an opportunity while watching a TV show or movie if the topic comes up. Or, perhaps they will share something they learnt from school with you.

Raising Children Australia outline three steps you can use to start a conversation.

  1. Find out how much your child knows about puberty. What have they learnt from movies, school or their peers?
  2. Give them information and correct any misinformation.
  3. Use the conversation to talk about your values

Use simple, factual explanations when describing physical changes. For example, “Your period or menstrual cycle is when the lining of your uterus comes out of your vagina. It will look like blood.” Or “A wet dream is when you ejaculate during your sleep”.

Your child might be comparing their body with others and might be feeling worried that their development is taking too long or is happening too quickly. Reassure your teen that everyone is different and that they may experience puberty at different ages and rates.

Avoid using words ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and comparing your child with a sibling or other teens.

You may find that your child no longer wants to talk to you about their body. They may feel more comfortable chatting with their GP or a school councillor.

young girl surfing

Looking after your teen during puberty

There are other important measures you can take as a parent to help your child look after their body and mental wellbeing during puberty. Encourage your child to keep up their daily movement, so they get enough physical exercise - this means around 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day.

Your teen is also likely to have an increased appetite. Getting the right nutrition will help them to grow and develop normally. The Australian Dietary Guidelines has more information on the five food groups and recommended serving sizes for an adolescent.

Along with increased nutritional needs your teen will also need around 8-10 hours of sleep a night to feel fully rested.

It’s natural for your teen to want more privacy during adolescence. This doesn’t mean that they have something to hide, but that they are trying to gain more independence. As the adult, it’s still important to monitor their behaviour as they are not always ready for the adult world. The best way to do this is by staying connected.

Remember, every teen is different and will experience puberty differently. Having open honest conversations with your teen will help them to understand and feel confident about what is happening to their body.

If you have any concerns about the development of your teenager, it’s important that you speak with your GP.

More Information

5 ways to make sure you're getting enough physical activity in your teens

5 things you can do to look after your mental health in your teens

Health in your teens: sleep

Raising Children Australia

Eat for Health

Health Direct

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Last updated: 22 September 2020