Few stages in life are as dreaded as puberty. Parents worry that during these turbulent years, their sweet, thoughtful child will be replaced by a defiant, moody adolescent. However, while it’s true that the brain pushes children in this age bracket to assert their independence, there’s no reason why your relationship with your child has to deteriorate. On the contrary, your child’s growing ability to relate to others on a more adult level has the potential to bring you even closer together.
Preparing for the Teenage Years: Adapting Your Parenting Style
Going into parenting an adolescent, there are two primary mistakes you’ll need to avoid making: One is the tendency to assume that your child suddenly no longer needs or wants your “interference,” and the other is the temptation to react with extremes when she asserts her autonomy.
You should be prepared to give your adolescent more freedom than she had as a child, it’s true. But, paradoxically, you can expect this change to increase her need for your guidance. She’s going to be handling a wide array of big, scary decisions for the first time: Whether it’s diving into her first serious relationship or figuring out how to stay safe when out after dark, there are going to be moments when your child feels more frightened and alone than she ever has before. Knowing how to be there for her in those moments without being intrusive or heavy-handed is essential. If you can master this, you’ll probably become your child’s mentor and favourite confidante.
Keep in mind that even though puberty will cause your child’s brain to prioritize peer relationships—and this can make parents feel a bit left out at times—this same social consciousness makes it hard for teens to share with one another. Teens are so scared of losing face in front of their peers that they typically hide the things that make them feel most vulnerable, sometimes even from their closest friends. Your teen doesn’t face this pressure to look “cool” at home, and that can make it easier for her to relax and open up.
Make sure your teen knows that you’re always available to talk to, and that you won’t react with harsh criticism when she makes a mistake. This is particularly necessary when it comes to discussing relationships, sex, and sexuality: Your child is going to receive a lot of mixed messages about sex and relationships from the media, and she’ll be relying on you to set the record straight. You must be prepared to guide your child without judging her if she does something you don’t agree with. Make sure she knows that any rules or limits you set in this area are put in place purely for her safety and well-being.
Generally speaking, when it comes to rules and limits, teens need a balanced approach. Overly permissive parenting can make your child feel rudderless and even unloved. On the other hand, extremely strict parenting is both a recipe for rebellion and likely to stunt your child’s ability to become independent. Rules and limits should be designed to keep your teen safe from harm while still allowing her to explore and express her individuality.
You should permit your child to have her own phone and private social media accounts and let her “hang out” with her friends freely, so long as it doesn’t interfere with her responsibilities. At the same time, however, she should be expected to do her share of the household chores, check in with you regularly, and adhere to a sensible curfew. If she breaks any of these rules, one or more privileges should be temporarily taken away.
Knowing exactly what happens to the brain and body during puberty can help parents take their child’s behaviour less personally. First and foremost, it’s important to realize that puberty usually starts before a child reaches his or her teen years. The onset of puberty can occur as early as nine or ten in girls, and as early as 12 in boys. However, some children start puberty as late as 14 (for girls) or 16 (for boys). Make sure your child is aware of this, so that he or she doesn’t become concerned if puberty doesn’t happen at the time he or she expects it to. For parents, it’s advised to start watching for early behavioural changes between the ages of 9 to 12. This will help puberty feel less “sudden,” rather than waiting for major changes to occur around the age of 13 and finding yourself ill-prepared to deal with them. (Note that a sudden growth spurt is a good indicator that puberty is well underway in both sexes. Girls also tend to gain a bit of weight at the start of puberty, which is one reason why body image issues are so prevalent among girls in this age group.)
Though some adolescents welcome the changes in their bodies, many feel overwhelmed and even dismayed by them. As a parent, you should therefore prepare yourself to have a number of conversations about body image, development, and sexuality. Don’t take the approach of having one single “talk” about sexuality and then breathing a sigh of relief, glad it’s over with. Your child will benefit much more from multiple, smaller “talks” that are tailored to her stage of development. (E.g., you should let your 10-year-old daughter get used to the idea of having a period before you dive into a conversation about sex—save the latter for early adolescence.) If you’re generally open with your child, she may save you the awkward task of broaching these topics by simply asking you what she wants to know. The more readily you answer your child’s questions about development and sexuality from an early age, the easier it will be for her to approach you on an as-needed basis. You’ll also help her see puberty for what it is—a natural, normal process—and not something to be scared of.
The Signs of Puberty at a Glance
Both sexes tend to demonstrate mood swings as their first sign of puberty, followed by a sudden increase in height. However, it helps to know the many other physical signs that puberty is occurring.
In both sexes:
- Acne develops;
- Voices deepen;
- Extra oil develops on the hair and skin;
- Body hair becomes thicker and grows in new areas, like the armpits and pubes;
- Hands and feet grow larger;
- Sweat production increases and body odour occurs.
- Breasts develop;
- The hips widen;
- Menstruation begins.
- The shoulders and chest grow wider;
- New muscles develop;
- Spontaneous erections and “wet dreams” occur;
- The reproductive organs grow larger.
Telling your child ahead of time that these physical changes are going to occur can lessen your child’s anxiety when they do develop. Make sure to guide your child on how to care for his or her changing body, too. If your daughter sees that you also have to use deodorant or tampons, for example, she won’t feel as self-conscious about the fact that she has to. Providing reading material is another great way to help your child accept his or her physical development. This is especially true if your child is shy and introverted and struggles to converse directly about what he or she is going through.
How to Support your Child’s Emotional Development
Teens can get so caught up in the physical changes brought on by puberty that they forget there’s a world of emotional changes going on, too. Without parental guidance, adolescents are frequently overwhelmed by their sudden shifts in personality. Kids need to know that the turbulent mood swings they’re experiencing and the new ways they’re relating to peers don’t mean that they’re going crazy—it’s just a part of growing up.
Let your child know that it’s perfectly normal for people her age to feel happy one moment and sad the next, or angry. Don’t minimize what she’s going through, though; tell her that you’ve been there, too, and remember how painful and confusing mood swings are. Opening up about your adolescent experiences might help your child see that it’s okay for her to share her feelings in like kind.
Your child may also need to be informed that developing a strong attraction to one of his or her classmates virtually overnight is normal. During the second half of puberty, strong romantic and sexual feelings kick in because the body has reached sexual maturity. Assure your child that accepting these feelings is okay, because they’re nothing to be ashamed of. At the same time, make sure your child is fully aware that sex is a huge responsibility—for both guys and girls—because it can result in pregnancy (even if contraception is used). Contrary to popular belief, most teens don’t actually experiment with sex until later in adolescence (after the age of 15), but it’s still important to make them aware of what their bodies are capable of, especially if they go through puberty early.
Preparing for Success
Developing a thorough understanding of what happens during puberty can help both you and your child navigate through this transitional period. By knowing what to expect, you’ll be able to put your child’s behaviour in proper perspective. You’ll also be able to provide her with the support she needs to do the same. Though the journey into adulthood is seldom smooth, the end result of this process will be a strong relationship with an adult child that you can be proud of.