Support Healthy Physical Development

Adolescence is an exciting time of physical, emotional, moral, and psychological changes. A time when teens are developing a sense of who they are. They may ask, “How do I fit in?” They question whether their bodies are normal.

Parents and caregivers provide an important stabilizing role during this time of rapid growth. The concept of adolescence as a bridge from childhood to adulthood can vary greatly from place to place. However, the sequence of physical development during puberty is the same all around the world. Here’s what to expect.

Changes During Puberty for Girls

Most girls go through changes starting around 10-11 years-old. The body makes hormones such as estrogen and testosterone that trigger important physical changes. For some, puberty can start as early as 8-years-old.

The physical changes that occur include:

  • an increase in weight
  • an increase in height
  • changes in sex characteristics and distribution of muscle and fat

The start of puberty and amount of growth may vary depending on family history, nutrition, and exercise. For example, many girls tend to get their periods around the time their moms did. Typically, girls experience their first periods (or “menarche”) between about 11 and 13 years of age. For many young girls, the start of their menstrual cycles is an important sign of their development into womanhood and fertility. It may lead to many questions about what is normal and what to expect.

Help Girls Know What to Expect

Prepare your teen girls by discussing what to expect and how to use pads or tampons. Girls are often concerned about when they will get their first period and what to do if their period is irregular. Surprisingly, for many girls, it’s not uncommon to have menstrual cycles that are irregular for up to 1-2 years after starting cycles. Periods can also be associated with pain, bloating and mood changes. Often cramps can be treated with over-the-counter ibuprofen. However, seek further care from a health provider for significant pain with cycles.

Girls often ask how tall they will get during puberty. They generally have their most rapid growth spurt before their menstrual cycles and tend to finish their physical development about 2-3 years after.

Breast development  (or “thelarche”) is the first sign of puberty in girls. Girls may notice a small sized lump beneath one or both nipples. Often, one breast may be larger than another. Following breast buds, the second sign of puberty is the onset of pubic hair (or “pubarche”). Initially, the hair may be soft and sparse. It will go on to become coarser, and spread into a V-shape on the pubic region. During this time, girls’ hips and pelvis widen. Girls will also experience an increase in body fat. This can sometimes trigger body image issues and eating disorders. Disordered eating is an important issue for parents to address.

Changes During Puberty for Boys

For boys, most start experiencing changes from 11-12 years, although puberty can start as early as 8-years-old. The first sign of development in a boy is enlargement of the testicles. In many boys, one testicle may hang lower than the other as they grow. The next change is the appearance of soft hairs around the base of the penis. Over time, the hair will become curlier and coarse, and extend from the pubic area to the thighs. Boys will also develop hair in their underarms, legs, and facial area. In addition, they will experience the production of sperm (or “spermarche”) which may account for nighttime ejaculations or “wet dreams”.

As development continues, boys will notice their chest and shoulders getting broader and an increase in muscle strength and size during this time. And they will likely experience a change in voice. As opposed to girls, boys tend to have their peak growth spurt closer to 14-15 years-old and may continue to grow years after the onset of puberty.

Boys will also notice an increase in the size of their penis and scrotum during adolescence. For many boys, the size of their penis may be a source of concern. It may be helpful to reassure them that size is not related to function, and that they are developing normally.

Reassure teens that changes can occur at different times for each person and they will have their own, individual shape or size.

Other Physical Changes

In both sexes, lung and heart performance improves as does hand-eye coordination and motor skills, such as ball throwing. This allows teens to have an increased ability to perform sports and exercise.

Positive Strategies for Addressing Teen Physical Development

Whenever possible, be a healthy role model for teens and encourage good habits. During puberty, teens are adjusting to their developing bodies and often compare themselves with siblings and peers. Provide straightforward explanations about physical changes and remind them that we are all unique! Reassure teens that changes can occur at different times for each person and they will have their own, individual shape or size. It’s common for teens and parents to have concerns related to puberty and how adolescents are developing physically. To learn more about those concerns and how to address them, check out our piece on common concerns.

Body Image

There is a wide variation in size and shape and development of muscle mass and body fat. Girls may accumulate body fat, especially around the hips and waist. Boys may increase their muscle mass during this time. Feeling occasionally unhappy or self-conscious of one’s appearance is normal during adolescence.

Parents play an important role in helping teens develop self-confidence and healthy body image as they grow. Encourage your teen to think about their unique strengths and assets, such as being compassionate, hard-working, musical, artistic, or mechanically inclined. Look to identify things that are not related to their appearance. Consider counseling early on for teens who may identify persistent concerns with these issues.

Nutrition, Exercise, and Sleep

Eating healthy and staying active are especially important for supporting rapid body growth during adolescence. Nutrition and exercise are just as important for teens as adults. They set the stage for habits they’ll have the rest of their lives.

Encourage teens to maintain a balanced diet, make healthy food choices and stay active on a regular basis. Eating together during a family mealtime and having family exercise routines provide a great way for parents to check in with teens and model healthy behaviors.

Sleep is something that everyone does, yet too many of us take our sleep habits for granted. Teens sleep cycles commonly change during puberty. Many young people start to stay awake later into the night time, and then sleep until later in the daytime.

How Much Do You Know About the Physical Changes Teens Go Through?
Figure out what you really know about puberty.

Skin, Hair, and Body Odor

Parents may notice that teens (and all their friends!) suddenly have pimples or a very strong body odor. Here’s the science behind why this happens. Glands in the skin are activated by hormones and produce more oil during the teen years. Teens may also notice their hair is more greasy looking. They may have to wash it more often. Also, sweat glands in the armpits and groin area are stimulated which can lead to increased body odor. Parents can encourage teens to manage body odor, by maintaining good hygiene, regular bathing and using deodorant.

Changes in hormones can also lead to skin conditions such as acne. Many products are available to treat acne, ranging from topical over the counter creams to, prescription oral antibiotics. Remind your teen that everyone deals with skin breakouts at one time or another! Many teens have acne and are self-conscious of it, but may not relay this to adults or doctors. It is important to seek treatment for acne, particularly moderate to severe cases, as it may lead to scarring in adulthood.

Asymmetry and Clumsiness

Its common for teens to appear a bit awkward and less coordinated. They may even seem more clumsy at times. There is a biological reason for this. Teens experience growth first in their extremities such as the hands and feet, followed by the arms and legs, and later the torso and shoulders. Reassure them that they’ll experience growth in spurts and not uniformly, but that it will likely even out by the end of their adolescence.

Your Parental Role in Adolescent Physical Development

Adolescence is an exciting but unsure time as teen bodies quickly change. Parents play an important, supportive role in helping guide teens to feel good about themselves and the changes their bodies are going through. If you or your teen have questions or concerns about physical development, take a moment to reach out to your child’s physician or a healthcare provider for professional advice.

This article was contributed by Anisha Abraham, M.D.

About Center for Parent and Teen Communication

CPTC is fortunate to receive editorial contributions from a range of multi-disciplinary experts, journalists, youth, and more.

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