Everybody goes through puberty. Puberty is the period of human development when a child’s body matures into an adult body. These changes might happen very quickly or very gradually over several years. Everyone’s experience with puberty is different, but there are still some changes that everyone goes through.
People react differently to puberty—some are uncomfortable with the unexpected changes, while others embrace them or adapt more quickly. When you experience the first signs of puberty, it can often be confusing and unexpected, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the process. But over time, you will adjust to these changes. Your older family members who have already gone through puberty understand those mixed feelings and may be willing to talk about them. But if you are more private or don’t want to talk about it with them, it may be helpful to read this section about what you can expect. In fact, even if you talk to others about this important stage of your life, it may still be helpful to read this section.
In this section, we will cover:
- The causes and characteristics of puberty
- Descriptions of body parts that play a role in puberty
- How bodies change during puberty through hormonal changes
- How brains and emotions change during puberty
- How reproductive systems work
- How hygiene routines may need to change during puberty
What is Puberty?
Puberty is the period of human development when a child’s body matures into an adult body. The changes people experience during puberty are physical, emotional, and sexual in nature:
- Physical: changes in your bodily features and appearance
- Emotional: changes in your feelings or moods
- Sexual: changes in your sexual organs and your feelings related to sex
Note: Puberty is a time when a body sexually matures and becomes physically capable of having children (reproduction). While people with sexually matured bodies may be physically and sexually able to have children during or shortly after puberty, most people are not yet ready for the responsibilities of parenting at that time.
The changes that you experience during puberty may happen quickly or gradually over the course of several years. There is no “right way” or “right time” for puberty to happen. For example, one boy may start to grow a lot of facial hair and notice his voice becoming deeper at the age of 14, while another boy may not grow facial hair at all and notice his voice become deeper at the age of 13. How you experience puberty may be different from your friends and peers, and that is okay!
For some people, these changes are uncomfortable or awkward. That is not unusual! People might have lots of different feelings, both positive and negative, about puberty, and they are all normal.
What Causes Puberty?
As you grow, your brain will send a message to your glands (a group of cells that releases chemicals into the body) to start producing hormones that cause you to grow into an adult body. Hormones can be thought of as chemical “messengers” that tell your body what to do. (Your body also produces lots of different hormones unrelated to puberty that are involved in most bodily functions.)
Everyone has the hormones estrogen and testosterone in their body, no matter what sexual parts they have. But the amount of each hormone that people have is different, based mostly on their sexual parts. If your body has a vagina, that means you also have ovaries, which will start producing more estrogen during puberty than before. If your body has a penis, that means you also have testes (testicles), which will start producing more testosterone than before. The hormones course throughout your bloodstream and trigger the changes of puberty. The image below illustrates how glands send a message to the ovaries or testes. The arrows show which parts of the body are most affected by these hormonal changes.
For most people, puberty starts between ages 10 to 14, but it is perfectly normal to start puberty before or after that age. It is something you don’t have any control over. In general, girls start going through puberty earlier than boys.
You’ve chosen to read the puberty section with non-gendered language! Click here if you change your mind and want to read this section using gendered language.
Talking About Bodies
In this section, we use language that talks about a person’s anatomy (body parts), instead of using the terms “male” and “female.” We offer a section with gender-neutral language because some people have ovaries/vagina/etc., but do not consider themselves female, and other people have penis/testes/etc., but do not consider themselves male. Yet others were born intersex, with a mix of organs or with organs that do not fit traditional descriptions. For these reasons, some people may also prefer to use the terms “assigned male at birth” and “assigned female at birth.” When talking about your own body, use whatever words feel good to you.
Gender-neutral language is not used a lot in our society. So if you use it, others may be confused or uncomfortable at first. Remember that, in general, talking about sexual and reproductive anatomy is uncommon or even taboo for many people. It is recommended that you explain to others that you want to use gender-neutral language, and then give them examples before you start talking. Ask someone you trust for support if you’re not sure what to say.
For example: Xavier mentioned to some classmates that people with penises begin puberty later, on average, than people with vaginas. Although what Xavier said is true, those classmates were not used to hearing the phrases “people with penises” and “people with vaginas.” Since lots of people are uncomfortable talking about sexual body parts, they thought Xavier was saying something inappropriate, and some of those classmates laughed or made fun of him. Xavier talked to his teacher for guidance, and with his teacher’s assistance, he explained to his classmates why he prefers gender-neutral terms.
The human body is made up of many different parts. In this section, we will discuss the body parts that relate to puberty.
In our society, your sex describes your anatomy (body parts). If you have breasts, a clitoris, a vagina, a uterus, and ovaries, you are assigned female at birth. If you have a penis, scrotum, and testes, you are assigned male at birth. These body parts make up a person’s sexual and reproductive anatomy. They are located both outside and inside the body – genitals is a formal word often used for sexual parts.
This guide discusses just a few of the major body parts involved in puberty and the reproductive system so that you can begin to understand the basics. It’s also important to learn about how puberty impacts people whose sex is different than yours so that you can fully understand puberty and reproduction and relate to them better.
Body Parts of a Person with a Vagina
Body Parts of a Person with a Penis
Everyone experiences change during puberty, no matter what genitals (sexual parts) they have. Although a lot of the changes of puberty depend on what sexual parts you have and what hormones your body produces, some things change regardless of those body parts. These shifts in your body may require you to make some changes in your behavior or habits in order to stay healthy and safe.
Along with the physical changes that happen during puberty, emotional changes happen as well. Two of the most common types of emotional changes include increased mood swings and sexual feelings.
Emotional Fluctuation (aka mood swings)
The changes that happen during puberty can make people feel uncomfortable and self-conscious. This can cause lots of emotions, including feeling irritated, being easily angered, or feeling depressed. In addition, many people experience mood swings, or quickly changing feelings, related to the body adjusting to new hormone levels. As a result, you may be feeling confident and happy one moment and a little while later feel irritated and depressed. All of these feelings are natural and okay, and most people experience them at some point.
It is always good to be aware of how you are feeling. This is especially true during puberty when emotions can quickly shift and change.
- Remember that emotions are temporary, even really strong emotions. If you are feeling bad, you will not feel like that forever.
- Find coping strategies for working through difficult emotions when they arise. Ways to deal with stressful emotions include exercising, eating healthy food, listening to music, writing in a journal, or taking a hot bath.
- Find what works best for you and be mindful to do those activities frequently in order reduce emotional highs and lows.
- Talk to a close friend or trusted adult about how you are feeling, as they can usually help you feel better.
During puberty, many people begin to experience sexual feelings. Sometimes, people don’t like to talk about these feelings because they are very private and it might be embarassing to talk about them. Even though it’s not always appropriate to talk about them, it’s healthy and normal to have sexual feelings. (The Sexual Activity section of this guide explains more about talking about sexual feelings.) Some people don’t feel sexual feelings much, or ever, and others may have these feelings many times a day. It’s different for everyone.
Sexual feelings can show up in different ways. They might make people feel warm inside, their sexual parts may feel tingly, and their hearts might beat really fast. When you’re having sexual feelings, you may feel like you want to kiss or touch someone you find attractive. You may even want to touch your own body and sexual parts or another person’s body and sexual parts. If this happens, it means you are “aroused” and attracted to someone. In impolite slang terms, people often call it being “horny” or being “turned on.”
Sometimes, people wonder if certain sexual feelings are okay or if they might be “weird.” All feelings are healthy, as long as they are not bothering you or affecting you or others in a negative way. If they are affecting you or other people in a negative way, it’s important to talk to someone you trust about these feelings. All sexual feelings are okay, but acting on sexual feelings is more complicated. The Consent section of this guide explains this in more detail.
Because lots of people are embarrassed to talk about sexual feelings, some people might start to feel ashamed of them, but there is nothing wrong with having sexual feelings about other people! It is our body’s natural way of telling us that we are capable of exploring deeper physical and emotional intimacy with another person. This can include creating a family together by having children. It can feel really fun and exciting when you have these feelings. It’s normal to be curious about sex, and it’s normal to be interested in people that you are attracted to.
Managing Sexual Feelings
Sometimes, sexual feelings cause a person’s body to react a certain way. For example, sexual feelings can cause a penis to become erect or a vagina to become lubricated, or “wet.” Both of these are normal and healthy reactions that happen because blood is rushing to the internal sexual parts.
The important thing to remember about sexual feelings is that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to respond to them. Responding appropriately to sexual feelings can be complex, so these issues are addressed in other sections of this resource. Some key things to remember are:
- Sexual body parts can feel good when touched. Sexual body parts also play a role in reproduction.
- If you are touching someone else, or someone else is touching you, then both people should give their explicit consent, or permission. No consent = No touching. The Consent section of this guide explains more about this. Asking for consent has its own set of social rules that you need to learn. Learning these rules will help you form positive relationships and avoid legal trouble.
- For most people, the age when you first become interested in touching others in a sexual way may be months or years before the age when you are ready to act on that interest and have your first sexual experience with another person.
- Later in this guide, we will talk about how to decide if you are ready to be sexually active.
- You may have the desire to touch yourself or someone else. Both of these actions are private activities and should not be done in public.
Puberty is when a person’s body changes from a child’s body to an adult body, so this is also when people start to be physically able to reproduce or make babies. Reproduction happens when a tiny egg and a tiny sperm merge together to start creating a zygote. If this zygote attaches to the uterine lining, it can develop into an embryo, then a fetus, and eventually a baby. You may have heard the phrase “when the sperm meets the egg” – we will explain how that happens below.
The Reproductive System of a Person with a Penis
When puberty begins, the testes of a person with a penis begin producing sperm. Sperm are reproductive cells that are too small to see with your eye, but under a microscope they look something like tadpoles. Sperm production continues throughout their lifetime.
When somebody is sexually aroused, sperm mixes with other fluids to create a filmy white substance called semen. During ejaculation, semen is pushed out of the body through the urethra. Each ejaculation can contain up to 500 million sperm, and once sperm production has begun, a body with a penis can produce millions of sperm cells daily. Only one sperm needs to meet the egg in order to fertilize the egg and begin a pregnancy – no more than one sperm can meet an egg.
The Reproductive System of a Person with Ovaries
After puberty begins, a person with ovaries starts to ovulate, which means that about once a month, an egg travels from the ovaries the uterus. To prepare the uterus for pregnancy, the uterine lining and fluids (like blood) build up each month. If a person with a uterus gets pregnant, the fertilized egg (an egg that has met with sperm) attaches to the uterine lining, which provides a place for a fetus to grow over the course of pregnancy (about nine months). Each month, if someone does not get pregnant (egg does not get fertilized), the uterine lining and blood leave the body through the vagina during menstruation. This monthly process is a bodily function known as the menstrual cycle. A person with ovaries cannot create more eggs, but is born with hundreds of thousands of eggs.
How Does Pregnancy Happen?
In order for pregnancy to begin, a sperm must connect with an egg. This most often happens through a type of sexual activity called “sexual intercourse.” Sexual intercourse is a sexual behavior that can include a penis being inserted into a vagina. Pregnancy is possible if semen is ejaculated into the vagina during sexual intercourse. To become pregnant, this needs to be done without using birth control. (Different kinds of birth control methods are explained in later sections of this guide. They all keep the egg and sperm from meeting, preventing pregnancy.)
Having sexual intercourse (usually just called “having sex”) doesn’t guarantee pregnancy. Sometimes, people have sexual intercourse without birth control and pregnancy doesn’t happen. Sometimes people may go to a fertility clinic to get medical help becoming pregnant if they are trying to have a baby but are not able to become pregnant without help.
To summarize, when the egg arrives in the uterus each month, one of two things will happen:
- The egg MEETS with sperm. This is only possible if two people have had sexual intercourse without using effective birth control. If the sperm reaches and meets the egg, the fertilized egg attaches to the lining of the uterus, and pregnancy begin
It takes about nine months for a fetus to become fully developed. A baby is born during a process called labor. Typically, babies come out through the vagina – this is called a vaginal delivery or natural childbirth. Sometimes, the baby is taken out through a C-section (a small cut in the abdomen) done by a doctor. If you are curious about how you were delivered, you could ask your parents. If you do, make sure you ask them in private, since it’s considered a personal conversation.
- The egg DOES NOT MEET sperm. An egg survives about 24-48 hours after it is released. If the egg is not fertilized, it breaks down. This is the signal that the lining and fluid on the walls of the uterus are not needed to help a baby grow at this time, so they can exit the body. This process is called menstruation (which was discussed earlier as well).
Learning about what happens during puberty – the time when a child’s body changes into an adult body – can feel overwhelming with a lot of information and changes to process. If you feel overwhelmed, try asking a close friend or trusted adult for support. Remember that everybody experiences puberty. Learning about the changes that happen during puberty is the first step in understanding how to take care of yourself as you grow into an adult.
- Puberty is when a child’s body changes into an adult body.
- Puberty starts at different times for different people, but for most people it starts between 9-14 years old.
- Hormonal shifts can cause changes in the physical body, emotions, and sexual feelings. These are all normal and healthy parts of growing up.
- Everyone experiences puberty differently, but almost everyone has awkward moments, so there’s no need to feel embarrassed if something awkward happens to you during puberty.
- Hygiene routines may need to change during puberty in order to maintain a happy and healthy body. You may need to try out different ways of managing your hygiene needs before you find a routine that works for you, especially if you have sensory sensitivities.
- Puberty signals that the body is capable of reproducing (creating babies). This can happen when an egg and sperm meet.
Information found on OAR’s Sex Ed. for Self-Advocates website, related videos, resources, and links are not a substitute for professional medical advice. All users of the site should consult with a physician or other health care provider to discuss specific concerns if they require further information or clarity.