Puberty is the transitional stage between childhood and adolescence. It begins with the appearance of secondary sexl characteristics and ends when the reproductive system is functional. This is called "sexual maturity". During puberty, the body undergoes physiological changes governed by sex hormones. This process is controlled by two glands located in the brain:
- The hypothalamus, which secretes the hormone GnRH to activate the pituitary
- The pituitary gland, which produces the hormones LH and FSH
Puberty is different for boys and girls.
Puberty in boys
For boys, puberty begins around the age of eleven. Hormones LH and FSH are present in large quantities during this stage and trigger a growth spurt. Boys can grow by up to ten centimetres per year and their muscles change accordingly. This stage of puberty is called bone maturation. During this period, growth plates take their final shape.
Hormonal messengers then signal to the gonads (testicles) to begin to produce testosterone and sperm. The testicles are small bursae located under the penis, inside the scrotum. They are responsible for making sperm. Contrary to popular belief, the increase in pubic and facial hair is not due to testosterone secreted by the genital glands. It is the adrenal glands that are responsible for this major change, just like in girls!
Puberty does not start at exactly the same time for everyone. For some it may come early, while others will notice it later on. To help you understand what is going on, we have broken down three different scenarios when it comes to puberty.
2- The different types of puberty
Not everyone grows at the same pace. Depending on the age at which it begins, puberty can take different forms:
- Early puberty occurs as early as age 6
- Premature puberty can appear at age 8
- Delayed puberty is for puberty that has not started at 14 years old
Don't worry, there are treatments to remedy each of these situations! When puberty comes on too early, hormone injections can be used to slow down the evolution of pubertal signs.
Late puberty is characterized by:
- The absence of growing breasts after the age of thirteen in girls
- The absence of menstruation in girls older than sixteen
- The absence of testicular enlargement after the age of fourteen in boys
- No ejaculation after the age of seventeen in boys
Delayed puberty does not always require treatment. In some cases though, late puberty can be treated with hormone replacement therapy. Boys are given testosterone and girls are given oestrogen-progestin.
For a medical diagnosis, you should consult a peadiatric endocrinologist. They will conduct tests to determine whether your condition (or your child's) is a pubertal disorder or some other pathology. An MRI, X-ray and pelvic ultrasound will help determine an accurate prognosis.
3- Signs of puberty in girls
In girls, puberty begins around the age of ten. During this period, LH and FSH stimulate the ovaries. It is the ovaries that are responsible for the production of eggs and the sex hormone estrogen - bit like in boys!
There are many signs of puberty in young girls. They usually start to appear between the ages of nine and twelve. Some of the most noticeable changes include:
- A growth spurt of about 8 centimetres per year
- Voice change (deeper by an average of one third)
- Breast development: the nipples become more pigmented, the areola enlarges
- The development of body hair (pubis, armpits, legs...)
- The appearance of the first menstruation
- More abundant and stronger smelling perspiration
- The awakening of sexual desire
The first menarche (period) occurs when the sexual organs (uterus, vagina, etc.) mature. For girls, the first menstrual cycle usually brings white discharge, a transparent liquid that serves to clean the genitals. The first menstrual period also signals the end of puberty.
All of these changes can be embarrassing and even uncomfortable for teenage girls. During puberty, curves appear. The morphology evolves so that the pelvis widens and the fatty tissue is distributed along the hips and thighs. The appearance of facial hair and pubic hair on the labia majora can also be a source of anxiety.
During puberty, the proportions of the body may seem unbalanced until each limb has reached its final size. Don't worry, be patient - everything should be fine once you reach your adult size! Your body knows what it's doing because everything is controlled by genetic factors inherited from your parents.
Complications of puberty
Puberty is often uncomfortable, especially for girls who are experiencing their first period. Menstruation can be accompanied by many symptoms, such as:
- Abdominal cramps
- Pelvic contractions
- Digestive problems, etc.
Most of the time, these symptoms are not a health concern. However, if they persist beyond the first two years of menstruation, it is best to consult a gynaecologist.
During puberty, the skeleton will grow considerably until it reaches its final size. This growth spurt can be accompanied by various discomforts such as:
- Acne, which is caused by the sebaceous glands that secrete excess sebum
- Stretch marks
In some cases, environmental factors such as endocrine disruptors can promote the appearance of acne. Rapid growth and weight gain are sometimes responsible for the appearance of stretch marks. Stretch marks are small red, purple or white streaks that look like scars. They usually form on the stomach, hips, thighs, buttocks or breasts when the skin stretches too quickly. A healthy and balanced diet can limit the risks of seeing them appear.
These physical changes can most off all have psychological consequences for young people. If necessary, consulting a child psychologist can help them through this period of upheaval.