Puberty: The great hormonal roller coaster

By Amy Johnson, Sex in the Suburbs

Puberty, lodged in between “puberal” and “puberulent” in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, comes from the Latin puberias, meaning “of ripe age” or “adult.”

Puberty is defined as: 1) The state of physical development at which persons are first capable of begetting or bearing children; 2) In botany, the period when a plant first begins to bear flowers.

I might describe it as a stage of development at which parents say, “My baby is growing up!” In fact, our babies have been growing from the time they were born, so what makes this stage so special, so turbulent, so roller coaster-ish? In a word: Hormones.

During puberty, which usually occurs sometime between ages 9 and 17, the pituitary gland signals the sex glands (ovaries in girls and testicles in boys) to start telling other parts of the body to grow. Hormones are the carriers of these signals, giving messages that account for most of the bodily changes associated with puberty — things like growth of breasts, menstruation and voice changes as well as facial, pubic and other hair growth. These changes also generally come with the ability to biologically reproduce.

For many youth, this is a time when they feel they are the only ones who are “getting” (or “not getting”) breasts; are going through (or not going through) voice changes; have gotten (or not gotten) their period; have (or haven’t) had their growth spurt. This is because, although everyone (with very rare exception) does go through puberty, the range of when that will happen for most young people is sometime in the eight years between when they are 9 and 17, quite literally a lifetime when you are that age.

What does one do with all the questions, concerns, and ups and downs? Here are some tips:

• Get yourself educated. Look for resources that help you understand what your child is going through and find ones you can look at with your child. For ideas, ask your child’s pediatrician, or go to

• Consider taking a class. Both Children’s Hospital and Planned Parenthood offer classes for parents, preteens and teens to have conversations about puberty and positive communication together. Sometimes, you can hire their presenters to come to your group. For Education Services at Children’s, call (206) 987-2000. For Planned Parenthood’s Education Department, call (206) 328-7715.

• Try to remember what it was like for you when you began going through puberty. Use these memories to increase your empathy with your child. You can’t fix puberty — it will happen. However, having a sympathetic parent who is understanding and willing to listen can go a long way to help smooth the roller coaster ride.

• Stay positive and care for yourself. Be gentle with yourself as a parent, and take breaks as necessary. Not only will it make it easier to get through these potentially tumultuous times, but you will also be setting good self-care examples for your child. It might even help you view puberty like the botanists mentioned above — as the period during which your child first begins to bear flowers.

Amy Johnson, MSW, is a professional life and parent coach in Federal Way. She facilitates faith and sexuality classes for youth, and parenting classes at the community center. Contact:

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