The keys to helping kids navigate puberty

Whether your preteen had an easygoing childhood or an extended version of the terrible twos, entering into puberty brings a whole new world. Do you know how to help your child navigate the challenges that puberty can bring?

You may think of puberty in terms of when to have the “talk.” But John Heise, MD, Director of Adolescent Medicine with Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, offers some different perspective.

“There should not be just one ‘talk,’” Dr. Heise says. “It’s better to have ‘teaching moments’ or mini discussions about their body and health over time. As they get older and more mature, or if they start asking questions, then these moments can get more specific and detailed.

“And it is fine to tell them what your morals and values are starting in middle and high school.”

So how early should conversations about puberty and body changes actually begin? Earlier than you might think, probably.

“Generally, the earlier the better,” Dr. Heise says. “Better to do this in a series of discussions starting as early as 8 or 9 years old in girls or 10 to 11 in boys. There are a lot of appropriate books, videos and websites that can help with this if you are unsure what to say and when.”

What’s normal and what’s not during puberty

Puberty is the time of life when boys and girls become physically and sexually mature. It typically happens between ages 10 and 14 for girls and ages 12 and 16 for boys, bringing with it body changes.

Girls will develop breasts, experience hair growth in the pubic area and armpits, and begin menstruation. Boys will see size changes in the testicles and penis; experience hair growth in the pubic area, armpits and on the face; experience voice changes; and gain muscle along with extra height.

While you’re probably familiar with the body changes that children undergo during puberty, you might not be as familiar with what happens mentally and emotionally. These changes can lead to some tense moments between children and everyone around them, including their parents.

But what should be considered a normal “growing pain” and preteen angst, and what should signal that help is needed for parents?

“Part of growing up mentally and emotionally is the maturation of mood and personality,” Dr. Heise says. “This can lead to mood swings and pulling away from the family. However, if the teenager is withdrawn to the point they have falling grades or are withdrawing from their friends, isolating themselves or have changes in their sleep or eating habits, then they may need to be seen [by a professional].”

How to handle puberty as a parent

Puberty can be hard on kids, but it can sometimes be just as challenging for parents. As your child changes and grows, you’re also facing an evolution of sorts as a parent, helping your child become more independent and yet still keeping them safe and healthy.

Dr. Heise offers some perspective on how to do so successfully.

“Realize that they have only one set of parents — and you are essential to them,” Dr. Heise says. “They do not need another friend.”

“They may seem to pull away from their parents, but parents have more influence on them than any of their friends, even if at times it may not seem so. Be open and listen to them. Respect their thoughts and opinions even when you may not agree with them. Be there for them and love them unconditionally.”

And remember, even though puberty may be hard at times, this period of life is also one to savor.

“Teens are a lot of fun,” Dr. Heise says. “Every time you see a teen, they are a ‘new’ person with new ideas, questions and challenges. The goal is to get them through this wonderful, exciting–and at times challenging–time, and have the teen become an adult who can not only be on their own as an adult but thrive as an adult.”

Could your child benefit from an adolescent medicine specialist? Learn more about adolescent medicine or call 423-778-5437 for more information.