Puberty is a topic we often feel uncomfortable talking about in society, let alone with our children. But Amanda Dunn’s book The New Puberty takes the reader on a journey through the complex and sometimes seemingly mysterious world of puberty.
By interviewing experts and critically reviewing the literature, Dunn provides an up-to-date and accurate review of current research on puberty. With a relaxed, chatty tone and including her own personal stories, Dunn explains the biological processes of puberty, associated medical conditions, the changing world children are growing up in, and examines what this all means for education.
So what is puberty?
Dunn describes when she first became aware of puberty when standing on a crowded tram at 11 years of age.
Without warning, the man standing in front of me turned around and accidentally elbowed me in the chest. The pain was terrible, like something hard yet tender and a little bit alien had taken residence in my body, shocking me so much I almost burst into tears […] I had no idea what breast buds were, but they had introduced themselves to me in no uncertain terms.
But why is so little known about puberty? When asked the question “when does puberty begin?” – most people will answer around 12 years of age. But we now understand that the earliest hormonal changes of puberty begin long before then. In fact, they begin around seven years of age with a surge in hormones called “adrenarche”.
“True puberty” is sometimes referred to as gonadarche, which is a rise in the hormones testosterone (the male hormone) and oestradiol (the female hormone) and leads to the development of secondary sexual characteristics. These secondary sexual characteristics include breast development in females, and voice deepening and facial hair in males.
These are complex processes that we still don’t fully understand and as such there is even disagreement among scientists about how best to describe these processes. Yet Dunn accurately explains them in an accessible way.
Where the book is perhaps less clear is when exploring whether puberty is starting earlier. Certainly our more recent knowledge of adrenarche has led us to understand that the hormonal changes of the pubertal cascade are starting earlier than we first thought.
But this is a different question from whether the timing of puberty has actually changed and this distinction could be made clearer.
With regards to the timing of the physical events, as Dunn reviews, there is now compelling evidence that breast development is starting at an earlier age. The same study showed that although there was a decline in the age of onset of later events, such as menarche (first period), this was not as dramatic as the decline seen with breast development and so this suggests the overall length of puberty may be increasing.
Puberty and brain development
Until a couple of decades ago, we thought brain development stopped in mid childhood. But with the introduction of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), we now know the brain undergoes significant reorganisation in the transition from childhood to adolescence.
Importantly, as Dunn notes, there is increasing evidence suggesting pubertal hormones have an impact on brain development during this time. So rather than this being a quiet or “latent” period of life, we now realise it’s a critical phase of development and is in fact a foundational phase of life.
The changing world
Dunn also examines the increasing rise of social media and its effects on how children are growing up today. Dunn notes “there’s really little point in trying to defeat social media – it is a forlorn pursuit”. But there are practical steps that parents can take and important skills that can be provided to students to help them navigate the online world. With some studies suggesting around a third of youth are involved in sexting, the advice to parents and teachers is particularly timely.
The role of sexualisation is also explored. Dunn reports findings from an Australian study, which showed girls aged 6-11 years reported levels of self-objectification that were similar to those of older girls and adult women. Self-objectification was in turn linked with body image problems and eating disorders. This chapter is filled with expert advice for parents and carers to help them provide a safe and supportive environment for their children to grow up in.
What does this mean for education?
Given our increasing understanding of pubertal development, Dunn explores what this means for education and in particular the need to revisit how sexuality education is taught in schools. As Dunn suggests, sexuality education
is not an easy subject to teach. But it would be a lot easier if teachers were properly trained in it.
Dunn describes her own sexuality education and how thankful she was when her Year 8 teacher showed how a tampon worked by placing it into water:
we watched in wonder as its white fluffy body took on the water and expanded.
Dunn argues that providing students with information about puberty once they have already started the pubertal process (or in some cases completed puberty) is too late. We need to be talking to children in the first years of primary school about their bodies and relationships, and then the curriculum should develop throughout primary and secondary school to meet the age-appropriate needs of students.
The New Puberty is a timely book for parents and teachers; concisely explaining puberty, its impact on development and dispelling many of the myths associated with puberty along the way. But it goes much further than this by providing the advice and strategies required to support young people through this foundational phase of life.
The author of The New Puberty, Amanda Dunn, is an editor at The Conversation. She was not involved in commissioning or editing this review.