The main points

  • Puberty is the time in a young person’s life when their sexual and reproductive organs mature.
  • Alongside many physical changes, a lot of emotional changes also happen.
  • Adjusting to the many changes that happen around puberty can be difficult for both parents/carers and young people.

Puberty is the time when a young person’s sexual and reproductive organs mature. Before any physical changes happen, the body starts to make hormones that trigger sexual development and growth.

Puberty changes usually happen between the ages of 8-16, and can start at different times for different people. Girls often begin puberty one or two years earlier than boys. On average a girl will have her first period between 12-13 years of age.

A lot of emotional changes happen alongside the physical changes and young people also start to think differently.

Physical changes for females around puberty

The physical changes that happen around puberty include:

  • Height – they will grow taller.

  • Curves – their hips will widen and their body will get curvier.

  • Breast growth – the first stage is called ‘budding’. Sometimes, the breasts are different sizes. This is normal; speak with a doctor if they are worried.

  • Hair growth – hair will start to grow around the pubic area and under the arms, and hair on the legs and arms will darken.

  • Pimples – many people get pimples on the face, back and chest.

  • Vaginal discharge – they may start to get a clear or whitish discharge from the vagina. This is a normal, natural self-cleaning process.

  • Periods – menstrual periods will start. Periods are part of a monthly cycle where the lining of the uterus (womb) thickens as the body gets ready for a potential pregnancy. Once a month, if a pregnancy has not happened, the lining is shed over a few days.

  • Period pain – they may start to have pain or cramps just before or at the start of their period. Exercise, a hot water bottle held to the abdomen (tummy), or over-the-counter pain medication may help. If the pain gets too much, they can see a doctor.

Physical changes for males around puberty

The physical changes that happen around puberty include:

  • Height and muscle growth – they will get taller and stronger and start to grow muscle.

  • Genital growth – their testicles and penis will get bigger. It is normal for one testicle to be bigger than the other. Some males worry about their penis size, but sexual function, including the ability to have sex and father children, does not depend on penis size. Speak with a doctor if they are worried.

  • Hair growth – body hair starts to grow around the pubic area, legs, under the arms and on the face. It starts off fine and then gets thicker and darker. Some young males keep growing and getting more body hair into their 20s.

  • Pimples – many people get pimples on the face, back and chest.

  • Voice changes – their voice gets deeper. This is sometimes called ‘voice breaking’ because of the ups and downs in voice tone.

  • Wet dreams – they may have wet dreams, where they ejaculate in their sleep. This is a normal part of growing up.

  • Erections – sometimes erections happen when they get nervous or excited, or for no reason at all, which can make them feel embarrassed. Other people will not usually notice them and they will go away after a few minutes.

  • Breast changes – they may get some breast growth and tenderness. This is a normal response to the changing hormones in their body and will eventually go away.

Emotional changes for young people around puberty

Along with many physical changes, a lot of emotional changes also happen around puberty. These include:

  • Coping with a changing body – young people have to deal with a lot of physical changes that happen around the same time. They now have a new body shape and may start to feel self-conscious about how they look. They may feel embarrassed if they think they are different from their friends. Other people may start to treat them differently. For example, if they look older, they may be treated like an older person.

  • Frustration because they feel different – it can be difficult coping with early physical changes or frustrating waiting for them to happen.

  • Mood swings – the sudden release of hormones into a young person’s body can bring about extreme emotions and mood swings, but this will settle after a while. Adults may find these moods difficult to deal with, but it can help to remember these are mostly caused by the changing hormone levels affecting the way the young person feels.

  • Energy changes – the physical growth and other changes can make a young person feel full of energy one moment and tired the next.

  • Sexual feelings – it’s very common and normal for young people to feel some sexual attraction at this time. It takes time for them to work out who they are really attracted to. If young people have any concerns about their feelings they should be encouraged to talk to a trusted adult.

  • Masturbation – is a normal part of puberty. Young people need to understand this is a private behaviour and their parents/carers need to support this by respecting their privacy in the bathroom or their bedrooms e.g. knocking and waiting before entering.

The way young people think changes around puberty as they develop their own identity as an individual and as part of a family. They are starting to figure out their own standards and ideals, form their own ideas, morals and values, and rely less on their parents.

Young people and their parents/carers around puberty

Young people may want more independence but not want to give up the support of their parents/carers just yet. This can mean sometimes feeling like an adult and sometimes feeling like a child. It may also mean they sometimes act impulsively and take risks.

Parents/carers may worry when their child wants to go out on their own and act independently, because they are concerned about their safety and wellbeing. Adults may know first-hand or have heard of situations where young people have been taken advantage of. They are also probably aware of the risks some young people take and may have even taken these same risks themselves when they were growing up.

This can lead to arguments between parents/carers who want to keep their child safe and the young person who wants independence. Young people and their parents/carers should try to sit down and work through these issues together.

It is important for parents/carers to communicate openly with their child and to make sure their child knows they can come to them to talk about anything, including any issues they may be having during puberty. This is one of the best ways for parents/carers to know how their child is managing puberty, to help keep them safe and to give them advice that will help them to make good decisions.

Getting through puberty

Puberty can be an unsettling time for a young person. It can also be an exciting time as they move from childhood to adulthood, and take on the rights and responsibilities that come with being an adult. Adjusting to the many changes that happen around puberty can be difficult for both parents/carers and young people. It can help to remember that everyone needs to be understanding and patient.

Parents/carers are learning too. If there are disagreements, young people should try to listen to what their parents/carers have to say and help them understand their point of view. It can be of help if young people show their parents/carers through their actions that they are able to take care of themselves.

Young people should also try to be considerate by letting their parent/carers know where they are at any given time and also if they have a change of plans to help parents/carers not to worry. This can make a big difference and will help show parents/carers that their child can act responsibly and safely.

When a young person handles situations calmly and maturely, the trust their parents/carers have in them will grow and they will come to realise their child is on their way to being able to take care of themselves independently.

Where to get more information, support or advice

This information has been produced in consultation with: Better Health Channel

Better Health Channel


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Last updated: 31 May 2022

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