What to Expect When Your Son Starts Puberty


I am in awe of the transformation.  I am a little sad, too.  My younger son, born breech at barely five pounds, is becoming a man.  At age 12 he is hands-down taller than me, with a cracking voice, acne and, um, hair (more on that below…).  It boggles my mind, a glimpse into what is in store for his twin brother, who has yet to join him in this journey.  I decided to repost What to Expect When Your Son Starts Puberty from April, 2015, to help us Moms (and Dads, of course) navigate these changes, changes in our little boys that come sooner than we are prepared to accept.


When my husband and I learned we were expecting twin boys, I had two thoughts.  One was:

YES!  No weddings to pay for!

And the other was:

Whew.  I get out of doing “The Talk!”

With the former I “thought” too soon, as we now also have a daughter (wedding fund started).  With the latter, well, we’ll see.  Because when my older son, um, discovered himself at age three, I was giving him his bath.  Dad wasn’t even in the house.  That was the wake up call:  I knew I needed to be as knowledgeable about my boys’ pubertal changes as I do my daughter’s.  So Moms, here’s some info to help us all navigate our sons’ transition to adulthood:

First of all, how to describe puberty to our boys.  Puberty is the collective changes children’s bodies go through to become adults, and these changes are caused by body chemicals called hormones.  For boys, puberty usually begins between the ages of 10 and 14 and can last anywhere from 2 to 5 years.  In other words, every boy starts, progresses, and ends puberty in his own way.

Hygiene/”Anatomy.”  Moms, you’re probably already giving your tween boys’ privacy at shower time, but you can still remind them about good hygiene habits.  And while many boys emerging into adolescence are familiar with the correct terms for their private parts (and joke incessantly about more creative words…),  a real sit-down about how they are different from girls is a good next step in talking birds-and-bees.  Gauge you son’s preparedness for this discussion and who it should be with.  Most often that person is Dad or the male role model in his life but that person may actually be you.  Be matter-of-fact and invite your son to ask any questions he may have.  And be prepared for the out-of-the-blue inquiry:  my son asked me at breakfast one morning why there was hair-down-there but referred to there as a well-known Hostess dessert item.  Imagine my shock.  But ultimately I was happy he felt he could come to me.

Growth spurts. Your son may feel concerned that in middle school the girls are taller than he is.  He may wonder when he will grow, or if he will grow at all .  Reassure him his turn is coming!  Girls enter puberty before boys so experience growth spurts first.  But when your son does start puberty, growth can begin at any time, and of course, at varying rates.  Growth is disproportionate, too, and can result in loss of coordination (aka “clumsiness”).  Hands, feet and the head grow first, followed by the arms, legs and torso.  So the terms “gangly” and “all arms and legs” definitely apply.  In addition, boys can grow up to 4 inches a year (!) during puberty, with final adult height attained at about age 17.   But keep in mind that ultimately height is genetic.  How tall your son becomes will depend on how tall you and Dad are.

“Breasts.”  When I worked in family medicine, I had a handful of boys come to see me after noticing a lump beneath one or both nipples.  Understandably, they were scared and their parents were concerned as well.  But fortunately I had some good news for them:  these small lumps or swellings are normal and temporary and will go away with time.  But if your son finds a lump and either of you are worried, by all means visit your pediatrician.

Voice changes.  Some sources say “don’t worry about it.”  But your son may feel differently!  Not only can it be frustrating to him for his to voice crack or slide into a lower or higher octave, it can be embarrassing.  The best thing you can do is be supportive and remind him of the strength in numbers:  all boys inevitably go through the same thing.

Growth of the testes and penis.  At about age 10 or 11, the scrotum and testicles begin to enlarge and develop.  Soon after the penis elongates and widens slightly.  At the same time, sex hormones (testosterone) are produced as well as sperm.  This can be a difficult transition for your son as he will experience his first erection and have wet dreams.  While he likely won’t approach you about either, here are two things you should know:

~He may feel everyone else can tell he is having an erection but no one will likely notice.

~Wet dreams resolve on their own once your son is further along in his pubertal development.

Hair.  Boys will grow pubic hair in much the same progression as girls, with the hair first being fine and light-colored and then becoming thicker, darker and coarser.  Some boys will discover this hair as early as age 10, or several years later.  Underarm and facial hair appear about 2 years after pubic hair.  If your son chooses to shave, have him use an electric shaver.  It’s the safer choice.

Acne.  One of the most difficult pubertal signs.  Our sons will need as much support coping with blemishes as they will the permanent bodily changes.  Even if your son is lucky enough to have the occasional break-out he will feel self-conscious about “zits.”  Support him.  If you had acne, tell him of your experience.  Take him to a dermatologist if needed for severe and/or extensive acne.  Encourage cleansing with a non-soap, non-comedogenic cleanser and go with him to the store to chose one.  But do remember:  acne cannot be “cured,’ only controlled.  Unfortunately, the only true cure is waiting it out (in other words, waiting until the end of puberty).

Perspiration.  As if hair growing in new places and acne aren’t enough, sweat production increases during puberty.  And this is not just associated with sports participation or nervousness over adolescent body changes.  Kids do start to sweat more.  Help your son choose an antiperspirant (deodorant only covers up odor but antiperspirant helps reduce the sweat.) that contains aluminum chloride.  The higher the percentage of aluminum chloride, the more effective it can be.

Note: Aluminum chloride does not cause breast cancer (or other health problems), as was circulated in the media a few years ago.   However, if you and your son are not comfortable with using an antiperspirant with aluminum chloride, try one of the natural products on the market today.  Do keep in mind, however, that most of these products are deodorants, not antiperspirants.

Emotions.  Everyone’s.  Not a physical change, obviously, but the emotional roller coaster goes hand-in-hand with everything above.  Be sure your son knows he can talk to you.  I was blown away when my son came to me and said I feel sad and don’t know why.  I get tearful just thinking about it.  Most of the time, though, he does bottle up his hurt, which unfortunately, boys are cultured to do.  They wear a mask of indifference so it’s not easy to tell if something is bothering them.  But don’t let this trick you into thinking everything is ok.  Engage your son in conversation while you are doing something together as this can help him “open up.”  And keep in mind that boys don’t process what they are hearing as well as girls do (really).  Be sure you maintain eye contact and keep your end of the dialogue brief when you are communicating with your son.  Set clear expectations, limits and consequences, and discuss family values.

But ultimately, the simplest and best advice is to just love him and support him.

[Photo courtesy of Chuck Black Photography.  Well, sort of.  It’s my husband’s photo and I didn’t exactly ask him if I could use it…]


[Post edited June 2017.]

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