Background notes

 

Puberty

 

Overview

The word 'puberty' is derived from the Latin word pubertas, meaning adulthood. It is usually defined as a biological or physical process characterised by the maturation of the sexual organs and appearance of secondary sex characteristics.

Puberty can begin as early as 9 years of age or as late as 15 years of age. Up to age 8 or 9, there is little physical difference between boys and girls, however by 10 or 11 years girls begin a growth spurt. Boys usually begin their growth spurt later at about 12 or 13 years of age. The ages at which these changes begin, and their rate of growth, vary enormously.

Other physical changes, such as acne can add to the turmoil and stress that adolescents may experience during puberty.

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Early onset of puberty

Although it may be concerning to parents, the development of breasts and pubic hair in girls aged 6 and 7 is no longer viewed as abnormal.

There are several factors that can contribute to the early onset of puberty:

  • endocrine disorder

  • familial associations

  • abnormalities in the ovaries, testicles or adrenal glands

  • structural problems in the brain

  • tumours that release hormones (oestrogen, testosterone, etc.)

  • a high percentage of body fat

 

Changes during puberty

Physical changes

The body's production of testosterone in boys and oestrogen in girls are responsible for the major physical changes called secondary sex characteristics. The specific effects of each hormone are outlined below.

Oestrogen

  • growth of the breast and breast tissue

  • growth of fatty and supporting tissue on hips and buttocks

  • growth of underarm and pubic hair

  • growth of vagina, uterus and enlargement of pelvis

  • skeletal growth

  • onset of menstruation

  • sexual arousal

Testosterone

  • growth of larynx causing a deepening of the voice

  • growth of hair on the face, body and genital region

  • skeletal and muscular growth

  • sperm production

  • sweat gland production

  • sexual arousal

  • growth and enlargement of the penis and testicles

Emotional changes

Adolescence is a time of physical, social and emotional maturation. Biological, social, emotional and intellectual growth in an adolescent is not synchronised.

  • Early adolescence: adolescents begin to detach themselves from family, seek more independence  and become more influenced by their peers. They grow rapidly and may experience increased stress, frustration and anxiety, and become more sensitive. They may also have feelings of self-consciousness about their changing bodies.  

  • Late adolescence: adolescents become more fully autonomous and start to formulate their own values systems. They are moving towards becoming more emotionally independent from their family, developing varied relationships with peers and possibly a closer relationship with a single individual. 

  • Adolescents may experience mood swings and strong emotions as a result of sudden surges in hormones.

Social Changes

See Adolescent relationships background information.

 

Teaching tips

  • The topic of puberty may be an exciting and interesting topic, though teachers should be mindful that some students may feel embarrassed, uncomfortable or even worried about learning how their bodies will be changing. Student comfort levels can be increased by introducing the topic with fun activities. For example, the game Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes can be used to link the concept of body parts, growth and reproductive body parts.

  • Ensure parents are informed that puberty and other elements of sexual and reproductive health topics will be covered in class.  Teachers may also offer to explain and discuss the topics to be covered such as healthy relationships, puberty, hygiene, etc. and that you are not ‘teaching their child to have sex'.  Advise that the program is best handled as a partnership between the home and the school so that there is a deliberate linking of students talking to parents about what they are learning about in school.

  • Use the resources for parents developed by the WA Department of Health, especially Talk Soon. Talk Often. A Guide for Parents Talking to their Kids about Sex.

  • If you using an educational or multimedia resource, minimise possible student distraction by using current and not obviously out of date (ie. clothes, hair styles and quality) videos. Allow sufficient time for discussion afterwards.

  • Teachers sometimes ask whether it's preferable to separate boys and girls for these classes. Research shows that there is no significant difference for either strategy. You may choose to separate your class by gender, keep them all together or mix strategies by separating your class for certain activities.

  • If it is decided to separate the sexes, ensure that both groups receive the same information. It is important for students to learn about what the other sex is also experiencing, as well as their own changing bodies. When making the decision about ‘separate or together' keep in mind the general principle that students need to overcome any potential discomfort in order to be able to effectively communicate sexual matters in relationships when they are older.

  • Assure students that everyone goes through puberty at exactly the right time for them and that this may be different for everyone.

  • Young women should be encouraged to continue on with sports and physical activity during their periods.

  • Puberty kits: The use of a puberty kit can be a useful tool in the classroom.  Check with your school's community health nurse to see if there are any kits already made, and available. Alternatively, pictures of each of these items can be printed off.

 

Relevant resources

Fact sheets/booklets/videos

Girls and Boys in Puberty, WA Department of Health

Puberty, Get the Facts

Puberty animation, Get the Facts

Puberty, Sex and U (Canada)

 


This Background Note relates to the following Learning Activities: