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Children's Health

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Earlier Puberty: Age 9 or 10 for Average U.S. Boy

Growing Gap Between Physical, Mental/Emotional Maturity

Parents, Boys, and Puberty

Once puberty starts, a boy will begin to change.

"Most parents think this puberty onset will happen at age 12 or 13. But for white boys, it's 10 years old -- this is fifth grade," Herman-Giddens says. "Now they are having to grapple with changes in their body and soon-to-develop sexual feelings at a younger age. And they are not at all ready to deal with this."

Julia A. Graber, PhD, associate chair of psychology at the University of Florida, is one of the few researchers to study puberty in boys. She says early puberty can be both good and bad for a boy's social and psychological adjustment.

On the positive side, boys become taller and stronger as they mature sexually. They are more athletic and look more masculine.

"But as boys look older at younger ages, they may get into situations more appropriate for older individuals," Graber says. "And at a chronological age where they are not prepared for that, where they don't have the psychological skills, they may be at increased risk."

In girls, puberty onset is obvious: Their breasts begin to develop, and later they begin to menstruate. In boys, more subtle signs, such as sparse pubic hair and a slight increase in testicle size, are easy to miss -- for parents and for the boys themselves.

Yet with normal puberty come changes in behavior. As boys enter puberty sooner than their parents expect, Graber says, their behavior is "out of synch with what parents, teachers, and other adults think they need to prepare for." These grownups may see a boy's normal behavior as problematic.

"We need to help parents understand this is happening earlier, and that they should be talking to their kids earlier than they had planned to," Graber says. "If parents look at WebMD articles and think, 'Oh my gosh, my kid may be experiencing these things,' then they can think of things they may need to do to help their kid deal with it. Things like nocturnal emissions or masturbation. Arousal increases as these hormones increase, and that can be confusing if kids are not mentally prepared for the notion of sexuality."

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