Puberty: A Parent’s Survival Guide

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No matter how advanced parents are in the 21st century, it’s normal to feel a pang of panic when it comes to talking to your child about puberty and sex. While there is no easy way to broach the subject, preparing for and getting comfortable with having this necessary discussion need not be a dreaded task.

When a child goes through the physical, cognitive and emotional changes associated with puberty, there’s a wide range of what is considered normal. Pediatricians typically rely on puberty milestones, known as the “Tanner stages,” to predict when your daughter will get her menstrual period, or how far along your son is in a growth spurt. The only certainty about developmental timing is that your child’s growth experience will likely be different from his or her peers. Already sensitive about a changing appearance, your child may be particularly self-conscious if he or she is the first — or last — in that peer group to enter puberty.

How to Ease Your Daughter’s Anxiety

Let her know what to expect.  On average, girls start puberty earlier than boys — between ages 8 and 14, with the average age being 11.  The first signs of female puberty typically include growth of pubic hair and breasts, awareness of body odor and acne. Your daughter’s body may change shape, becoming generally fuller and wider at the hips.

One to two years after these first signs of puberty, she will likely begin menstruating. At this time, consider providing her with a book that might explain the changes in more detail, such as “The Care and Keeping of You” by Valorie Schaefer, (American Girl, 1998. Versions are available for ages 8 and older, and ages 10 and older.)

“You don’t want girls to have a fearful experience when they start bleeding,” says Dr. Curtis McDonald, medical director at the Charlotte Pediatric Clinic.

He suggests putting a strategic plan in place so your daughter is prepared, no matter where or when she gets her first period.

Provide her with what she’ll need before she needs it. Give her a care package to keep in her closet and backpack, which could include deodorant, over-the-counter facial washes and creams, pads, tampons (along with tips for how to use them), and remedies for cramping, such as ibuprofen and a hot water bottle or heating pad.

Remind her of the importance of good health and hygiene. Getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet can help a teen girl feel good about her body, improve her mood and help her focus. Girls in particular need to get plenty of calcium, Vitamin D and iron, McDonald says. Plus, exercise and healthy eating can help alleviate adolescent stresses and influence lifelong routines.

Be supportive and keep communication lines open. As your daughter’s hormones kick in, her motivations may become more socially focused and her need for independence may increase, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Human Brain Mapping study, published in May 2010. Be prepared for mood swings and “attitude” as she deals with shifting hormones.

But remember: You are the adult. Try to keep your cool if she gets frustrated or upset with you. Whether she admits it or not, she needs your support and love.

Know her world. “It may be cliché to talk about girl drama, but it is very real,” says Jeff Parkin, guidance counselor at Durham Academy Middle School in Durham. “The drama ramps up in sixth grade as girls become more socially aware and friends become central, but by eighth grade they are usually mature enough to overcome their issues.”

How to Ease Your Son’s Anxiety

Let him know what to expect. Boys tend to start showing signs of puberty about a year later than girls — between ages 9 and 15, with the average age being 12. Early signs of puberty for boys include growth of pubic hair, increased sweat gland production — aka body odor — and growth of genitals, which is hidden, unlike the very public growth of breasts. Later stages for boys include voice changes, acne, increased muscle mass and a final growth spurt. Keep aneye out for the most obvious of the early signs: sudden growth spurts, an increasing desire for independence, and hard-to-ignore body odor.

Familiarize him with the stages of puberty. Be sure to include information about girls in your discussions, since they will likely start to loom over him and develop breasts before he even enters his first stages of puberty. His knowing what to expect might make him more sympathetic and less self-conscious. Provide him with a detailed and approachable book for boys that explain the changes, like “What’s Happening to Me?” by Alex Frith (Usborne Books, 2006).

Remind him to maintain good hygiene. Parkin has observed that boys don’t express the same angst over puberty and body changes that girls do. This lack of anxiety is comforting, McDonald says, but it also means parents may need to nag at sons about showering daily, brushing their teeth and combing their hair until they become habits.

“It’s a transitional time,” Parkin says. “They don’t have much concern for self-image so they won’t do these things on their own, but it’s an important lesson in growing up — to take responsibility for your appearance.”

While teen boys might be less concerned with self-image than girls, late or early bloomers may be sensitive about being different, or worried that they will never grow. Be aware of this possibility and remind your son of the wide variety in normal development.

Taking on the Teen Years

Clear things up. Not all teens suffer from severe acne, but even dealing with an occasional pimple can be troubling. “Teens are shy about it,” McDonald says. “My patients won’t bring it up on their own.”

Without criticizing your child’s appearance, explain that hormones cause skin changes during puberty and that good hygiene and a daily cleanser can be powerful tools in warding off outbreaks. Over-the-counter acne treatments have “gotten so much better, and many are as effective as prescriptions,” McDonald says. Your pediatrician can offer additional remedies if your child’s case is severe.

Understand teen brain development. Teenagers’ brains do not function like adult brains. While the thrill-seeking, risk-taking, peer-following part has developed, the reasoning area of a teen’s brain will not fully develop until your teen is in his or her mid-20s, according to Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s “The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development” (Center for Adolescent Health, 2009). Keep these very natural tendencies in mind as you are telling your adolescent to “just say no.” One way to protect your teen may be to keep him or her as busy as possible with constructive activities, or to simply have him or her steer clear of attractively dangerous situations.

Make “The Talk” an ongoing conversation. Forget about “the talk.” Issues associated with puberty and growing up should be part of an ongoing and open discussion — not a single, embarrassingly intense lecture, which puts too much pressure on both you and your child. Focus instead on open communication, so that when an issue comes up, you are both comfortable having a conversation about it.

Considering the proliferation of sexual references in movies and on TV, social media and the internet, if you wait until you think your teen should know, you are probably too late. 

“It’s better for a child to hear it from a parent or other mature and trusted source rather than on the bus or on social media,” says Dr. Laura Sinai of Signature Pediatrics in Charlotte. “The best strategy is to be offensive and provide accurate information that reflects your own values.”

Another reason to start having conversations earlier rather than later is that several studies analyzed in a citation published by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 (and revised in 2017) concluded that the age of puberty in both boys and girls has been inching younger.

“Kids are developing physically without the cognitive tools to handle it,” says Marcia E. Herman-Giddens, an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health, who first identified the issue in a 1997 study at Duke University. “Being open with young children, and providing them with information that will keep them safe, is absolutely key.”

She points out that this information is just as important for kids who don’t develop early so they have context for treating their peers with respect and understanding.

North Carolina public schools, and most private schools, start some form of sex education in the fifth grade. “We find that fifth-graders still have that aspect of curiosity and openness,” Parkin says. “By sixth [grade], they tend to be more self-conscious and less likely to talk.”

Consider starting the conversation with your child before he or she starts learning about it at school or from the media. But keep in mind that the school sessions provide a great opportunity to continue the conversation by asking your child what he or she learned, and whether he or she has any follow-up questions.

Know what they know. Today’s youth have access to a lot more than the basic “birds and bees” information. Many teens have seen internet pornography by the time they are seniors in high school, according to an August 2013 Psychology Today article titled, “Overexposed and Under-Prepared: The Effects of Early Exposure to Sexual Content.” If your teen has no real experience with sex and then is exposed to porn, porn may become his or her baseline for how he or she views sex.

“It’s important to bring this up with kids before they see it,” Sinai says. “You should let them know that porn is about as real as what might happen in a Road Runner cartoon, where the coyote falls off a mountain and hops right back up. Tell them and tell them again: Real people don’t treat real people this way. It is just terrible interpersonal dynamics.”

Know your resources. Every child needs someone to talk to as he or she goes through puberty. If you’re uncomfortable doing this, find a trusted friend or family member who isn’t.

“If a child hides some anxiety inside, then it eats away at them and makes it worse,” McDonald says. “Pull back the curtain and make sure they have the information they need to be comfortable with who they are becoming. Empower kids with information they can handle.”

From “It’s NOT the Stork” for preschoolers by Robie H. Harris (Candlewick Press, August 2006) to “The Teenage Body Book” for teens by Kathy McCoy and Charles Wibbelsman (Penguin Random House, August 2016), there are helpful books to read with your child no matter what age you decide to introduce him or her to conversations about puberty and hormones. There are also excellent resources online for teens, such as the Center for Young Men’s Health and the Center for Young Women’s Health.

If websites and books don’t fully answer your child’s questions, consult with a professional. Your pediatrician should be your family’s first resource, and can put you in touch with a psychologist who specializes in talking with parents of teens. 

Finally, remember that it is absolutely appropriate for your child to slowly break away from you. Celebrate this growing independence, while keeping your child safe and informed until he or she has matured enough to move forward without your loving assistance.

Caitlin Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Durham.