Late Childhood (9-12)
In the years from 9 to 12, most children will begin a rapid phase of transition from childhood to adolescence. The term “Puberty” refers to a stage of biological maturation where a boy or girl becomes capable of reproduction. Although some children will begin the changes of puberty before age 9, most will begin the process of rapid growth and physical change in the years between 9 and 12. For some children, noticeable changes do not begin to occur until age 13 or in rare cases until age 14 or later. On average, girls will begin puberty at age 10 or 11 and boys will begin at age 11 or 12. There are a number of noticeable physical signs that a boy or girl has begun puberty. Overall physical growth will accelerate with some boys and girls growing several inches taller per year.
For girls these changes include breast development, the appearance of hair in the genital (pubic) and underarm areas. The sweat glands in the genital and underarm areas become active. This is also the time when most girls will begin menstruating (see below). A girl’s internal reproductive organs (ovaries, uterus, vagina) grow rapidly during puberty. The external genitalia (clitoris, labia) will also increase in size. The average age of first menstruation for girls living in North America is about 12 ½ years but it is quite normal if a girl has her first menstruation several years before she reaches the age of 12 or if she has her first menstruation several years afterward. A girl who has begun puberty will experience vaginal lubrication that accompanies sexual arousal.
The physical changes of puberty are similar for boys. They will begin to grow hair in the underarm and genital areas. The penis and scrotum will begin to grow larger and many boys will begin growing facial hair that becomes courser and darker over time. A boy who has begun puberty will sooner or later experience ejaculation which may occur while he is asleep (commonly referred to as a wet dream). A boy going through puberty will experience erections much more frequently than he did in the past.
Puberty is typically the time where the nature and frequency of masturbation in both boys and girls changes compared to earlier in childhood. The focus of masturbation becomes geared towards pleasure and orgasm. Many girls and boys who did not masturbate earlier in their lives will begin to do so during puberty. While nearly all adolescents will experiment with some form of masturbation, some will masturbate regularly and some will do so infrequently or not at all. Unless an adolescent is masturbating so frequently that it interferes with basic aspects of his or her life (e.g., school, family and social life) it does not cause physical or psychological harm.
It is important for parents and educators to make sure that children are fully aware of what changes to expect when puberty begins well before the changes actually begin to happen. After a long period of gradual and predictable growth, during puberty a young person’s body begins growing very quickly and in very different ways than it did before. These changes can be confusing and traumatic, particularly if a boy or girl does know they are coming. The first major step a parent or educator can take in assisting a young person through puberty is to make them fully aware of the changes that will occur. Not only should boys and girls be fully aware of the changes that will occur in their own bodies but they should also be provided with opportunities to learn about the changes that occur in the opposite sex.
The biological aspects of puberty, while certainly profound, tell only half the story. The emotional/psychological aspects of puberty (many of which are linked to biological maturation: e.g. increases in testosterone) are equally significant, particularly as they relate to sexuality. As they go through puberty, it is typical for young people to develop a heightened, at times seemingly obsessive, preoccupation with their physical appearance. Anxiety over physical appearance can lead to feelings of inadequacy.
Relationships with peers are also likely to change. Whereas, in the years leading up to puberty, there is a tendency for children to interact mostly with same sex peers, as youth approach the teen years they begin to increase social interaction with the opposite sex.
It is during this period that feelings of attraction may take on an overtly sexual component. The “crush’s” that younger children often have will, with the beginning of puberty, evolve into more adult like attractions that may include feelings of sexual attraction. Socially, youth entering puberty will be taking more pronounced steps into adult gender roles and in so doing they may begin dating or more likely in their words “hanging out”, or “going with”, or “go together”. Typically, in the 9 to 12 age group such relationships do not involve sexual intercourse. Youth of this age are much more likely to be kissing and hugging, while breast and genital touching are less likely but not uncommon.
For most young people it is likely that the basis of their sexual orientation will have been formed well before puberty. However, as youth begin to experience the more direct sexual attraction and fantasy that accompany puberty, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are likely to become more concretely aware of their sexual orientation. In other words, these youth are at the time in their lives where their homosexual or bisexual orientation is leading them to the developmental task of establishing to themselves, and perhaps to others, a self identity as gay, lesbian or bisexual. This may cause added stress to the experience of puberty for homosexual and bisexual youth. It is also not uncommon for heterosexual youth, particularly in early adolescence, to have some same gender sexual attractions or fantasies. This is not unusual and such attractions should be not seen as necessarily indicative of a youth’s sexual orientation.
Most youth in the 9 to 12 age group will not have experienced sexual intercourse. At present, the median age of first intercourse for males and females in Canada is 17. That is, half of Canadian teens will have intercourse before age 17 and half will have it after age 17. About 5% of boys and 1% of girls will have had intercourse by their 12th birthday. By the age of 14, about 30% of males and 20% of females will have had sexual intercourse at least once. These figures on the age of first intercourse among youth are important for parents/caregivers and educators to consider because they clearly point to the need for youth in the 9 to 12 age group to receive broadly-based sexual health education.
It is clear that if sexual health education is to meaningfully assist youth in promoting and enhancing their sexual health it must provide relevant information, motivation, and behavioural skills before they become sexually active. For example, information and skills geared towards helping youth delay first intercourse that is initially provided when they are age 14 will be too late for many. More importantly, since approximately a quarter of youth do have intercourse by the time they are 14, it is vital that those youth who do become sexually active at this point are fully educated and equipped to protect themselves against unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. As children enter puberty they enter a period of heightened sexuality. Nearly all youth at this phase of development are preoccupied to some extent with sexuality. As a result, 9 to 12 is a critical period for the provision of sexual health education.
- Physical changes associated with puberty
- Psychological/social changes associated with puberty
- Full understanding of rights and responsibilities related to sexuality and relationships.
- Dating (i.e., going with)
- Physical intimacy (kissing, petting)
- Preoccupation with sexuality (e.g., frequently makes references to sexuality)
- Interest in sexual media
- Premature initiation of adult sexual activity
- Difficulty adjusting to homosexual or bisexual orientation
- Difficulty with body image
- Difficulty with social skills
- Complete knowledge of the physical and psychological aspects of puberty.
- Broadly-based sexual health education, including delay of first intercourse and contraception/safer sex.
- Social skills education related to rights and responsibilities in relationships and mutually satisfying interpersonal relationships.
- Development of media literacy skills to understand, interpret, and evaluate media sexuality messages and imagery.