Stages of Puberty- Part 1

Puberty is scientifically defined as a period of rapid growth and physical change during which adolescents become sexually mature. It is the age at which visible sexual characteristics develop and sexual organs mature. Puberty begins when the pituitary gland located at the base of the brain secretes hormones that stimulate the production of sex hormones. Within 2 years of the onset of puberty sexual reproduction becomes physiologically possible, even though mental and emotional readiness comes later.

The age at which puberty begins as well as its rate of growth is influenced by genetics, general health and weight. The onset of puberty occurs differently in boys and girls.

Boys Girls
The normal age for such changes is between
10-15 years 10-14 years 
(about 1-2 years before boys)
Puberty is normally characterized by
  • a growth spurt 
  • deepening of the voice
  • enlargement of the genitals
  • development of facial, pubic and armpit hair 
  • widening of shoulders
  • breast development
  • rapid increase in height 
  • widening of hips
  • thickening of thighs 
  • start of menstruation 
  • growth of pubic and armpit hair.

In ancient times a child’s entry into puberty was considered a cause for celebration. Even today in many parts of the country a girl’s first period is celebrated publicly with ritual fanfare. However, increasingly as urban India distances itself from the natural rhythms of birth and death, puberty and all that it connotes has become an embarrassing and even taboo subject. Unfortunately though, avoidance of the topic often means condemning our children to flounder through this confusing and painful time alone with little access to reliable information or emotional help.

In the world we live in, children are exposed to knowledge of sex very early through the medium of TV, films and now the Internet. But the sex they see is meant to titillate and is often more a show of lust than the tender and loving intimacy it should be. Given our own discomfort with the topic of sex, our children are not even exposed to loving touches between parents or proper guidance about their bodies or their sexuality by the parents. They learn instead to satisfy their natural curiosity and anxieties by sneakily and guiltily reading semi-porn or adult books and magazines and from rape scenes or adult western films. Instead of learning to like and appreciate their own bodies and enjoy sexual comfort, they learn that sex is dirty, degrading and to be enjoyed in secret with feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment. We wonder then why frigidity, impotence and perversions are so much a part of our society!

Most of us can make jokes about sex but are unable to discuss it seriously with our children. A mother may find herself explaining the basics of menstruation to her daughter but she can’t even imagine herself talking of wet dreams to her son or masturbation to either her son or her daughter. As for sex itself, it is hoped that the child will find out through friends or books and any unexplained details will become clear on the wedding night anyway! And few fathers can bring themselves to broach any sexual topic with their children let alone teach them about the birds and the bees. Even the most enlightened of parents feel that it is better to wait till the child asks and better still if kids learn through sex education classes at school. The problem with these approaches is that there are many children who never ask. There are others who ask their friends and not the parent and often end up with a lopsided view of the whole thing. And sex education classes do a great deal in explaining the reproductive cycle but little in helping children understand their own sexual needs.

Why should you discuss puberty and sex with your children? Isn’t it perverted or maybe even incestuous to discuss such things with your kids? Won’t such discussions encourage them to regard sex as acceptable and become more sexually active at a younger age? The answer is a resounding no. Being informed means that children are able to make more responsible decisions about their relationships and sexual behaviour. And don’t fool yourself that your children won’t experiment if you don’t discuss sex with them. Even as babies, children are aware of their own bodies and those of others. If they are left to discover the facts of life by themselves they will undoubtedly pick up half baked and warped information and they may be unable to protect themselves from sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancies or worse, from diseases like VD or AIDS. Clinics are full of traumatized young adults unsure of the exact details of how pregnancies occur or how AIDS is transmitted. If you care about your children find a way to talk to them on this subject. Here are a few guidelines:-

  • Start early. Don’t avoid or shame a child’s first natural explorations of his body. Teach him that this is a private aspect of him by all means, but don’t teach him that a part of his body is dirty or unclean.
  • Allow your child to see affectionate and caring touches between you and your spouse so that he learns that relationships are more than sex. This will also help balance the effect of TV on impressionable minds.
  • Don’t treat sex as a taboo. The child will pick up your discomfort and in turn he will be uncomfortable with his own sexuality.
  • Make allowances for the confusion and frustrations that surround puberty. Massive hormonal and physiological changes are taking place and your child needs desperately for you to explain and guide him through this traumatic period.
  • Don’t wait until the child is in his teens. Start a program of casual sharing of information from 3-4 years of age.
  • Don’t overreact over masturbation. Infact don’t react at all – ignore it. This is an activity with no side effects and is widely prevalent all over the world.

If you still can’t bring yourself to talk to your child about sex, take the help of counselors or books such as the one brought out by TARSHI (order one here).

We’ve all been through puberty but with time we tend to forget all its stresses and strains. In today’s world the pulls and pressures are greater and you definitely need to provide the right kind of guidance so that your children develop holistically. Don’t let your parents attitudes dictate to you – make your own tradition where your children turn to you for the truth, friendship and for guidance.

Puberty Part II – implications of puberty, what to tell your child, menstruation, ‘wet dreams’ and masturbation – in Mom’s Ezine September 2000 issue.


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