Parents anxiously anticipate the puberty years for a reason. Kids form their own personalities, struggle to contain unstable emotions and try to make friendships; add in confusion about their changing bodies, and it’s no wonder parents worry.
For kids whose bodies don’t change alongside their peers, however, it can be even more confusing.
Kids whose bodies mature earlier or later than other kids their age sometimes feel anxiety about the changes (or lack thereof), says Marisa Elias, a pediatrician at Henry Ford Health System’s Southfield location.
“The puberty phase can be a confusing and scary thing for teenagers and parents,” Elias says. “Even though it feels like years, know that it will have an end date.”
When does puberty begin?
“The earliest we see puberty in girls is 8 and in boys is 9,” Elias says. Puberty is “involved with hormones in the body, so if someone starts earlier than that, we need to see if there’s something going on.”
She says it’s considered normal for the initial phase of puberty to start as late as 14 or 15, in both boys and girls. “It’s a big range because there are a lot of factors.”
Different organs in the body produce the hormones that push puberty into high gear, so if a child has an underdeveloped organ producing less of a hormone or is missing the organ altogether, it could potentially affect development, she adds.
Why all this variation?
It’s mostly hormones and genetics, Elias explains, but “just how some learn to walk or read faster than others, there’s not one really good reason.
“Height is a big one; body mass is another that varies a lot,” Elias says. “In girls, breasts, hair and a period can come at different stages, and for boys, mostly testicular enlargement, pubic hair, armpit hair, voices changing – that can happen at different times for different boys.”
Some kids might even have variation between when different parts of their body begin to develop. For example, a boy’s jaw and nose begin growing twice as quickly as the rest of his face.
“I think it’s good to remember that everyone goes through that awkward stage,” Elias says. “Everything’s growing at different rates, so if people in the family have more prominent noses, it might come in early.”
While the reasons why one child might get a period at 9 and another at 14 are fuzzy, Elias says when mom and dad went through puberty is a good indicator of when a child will go through it, too.
Those growth charts pediatricians compile from a child’s yearly doctor’s appointment can be another handy tool for predictions. Pediatricians can use growth charts to guess how tall a child might end up and what the healthiest weight for them will be, she says.
How to help kids cope
“Basically, I normalize it,” Elias says. “I say, ‘You’re a normal, healthy growing boy. Your body is doing everything it has to do, and every body is unique! Your friends will go it through it, too, so ignore the teasing and get teachers and parents involved if need be.'”
Elias says she encourages parents to continue the message at home. Tell the child that what he or she is experiencing, whether it’s maturing earlier or later than their peers, is (in most cases) totally normal.
She also recommends putting together a puberty goody bag. For boys, gather razors, deodorant, face wash and body wash; for girls, add in period supplies and a new pair of underwear.
“Girls can keep a bag like that with them in school,” Elias says. Giving them the supplies is a good time to talk about the coming changes and a chance to reiterate that starting puberty a bit out of sync with peers is normal, she adds.
“One of the most important things to do during these bodily changes is to enforce hygiene in general – brushing teeth twice a day, showering once a day and getting deodorant from the store,” she says.
She says parents can always comfort a child developing early or late by talking about their own experiences with puberty.
“Explain what they went through when they were younger,” she advises parents. “Everyone’s body is unique and gets there at different times.”
Finally, if parents have exhausted their own methods, getting reassurance from a professional can put a child’s mind at ease. Always schedule an appointment if the child begins developing outside of the age range 8-15 for girls and 9-15 for boys, she adds.
“It’s a lot of pressure: There’s physical changes and there’s a lot of emotional developments,” she says. “If it gets too out of hand, that is something a pediatrician can help with.”