As teenagers reach puberty, their bodies are likely to undergo significant changes, and their moods may be unpredictable and sometimes hard to explain. Don't worry. These changes are normal.
Puberty lasts for several years and marks the life stage when one's body changes from a child to an adult. Hormones help trigger and guide this process. They are natural chemicals in the body that produce gradual physical changes during this time and may also cause emotional changes that can sometimes seem uncontrollable to the person experiencing them and perhaps challenging for you as a parent. These changes are common during puberty, and they happen to everyone.
So, how can you best support your teen?
Don't wait to talk to your son or daughter about the changes they are experiencing; make time for communication. As an adult, you can provide support to your tween or teen who may not be sure what's "normal" and what's not. Assure them that everyone is unique and that they may experience these changes at a different time or pace than their peers. Though you both might feel uncomfortable at first, in the long run these conversations will make this transition easier for you and your child. Answer their questions with honesty. This includes making sure you have an understanding about puberty that you can share with them.
Puberty in girls
A female going through puberty will face physical changes, such as larger breasts, hair growth in new places, acne and changes in the shape of her hips, waist, bottom and thighs. As her breasts start growing, usually between the ages of eight and 12, you'll likely start to notice. This means that it may be time to take her shopping for a bra. Be sensitive to her need for privacy, but also offer a place for her to voice questions or concerns she may have about her changing body.
Menstruation is a turning point in a female's development from a child to a teenager. It's important to talk openly with your daughter about what to expect with regard to her period, what other kids are saying and how she feels about it.
Hair will start to grow under her arms and on her legs and pubic area. Your daughter might want to consider hair removal. Ask her about it and listen to her concerns and feelings. Instead of simply saying yes or no, explain the reasoning behind your answer.
Puberty in boys
For males, puberty generally starts between the ages of 12 and 14. Changes include growth of the genitals, broadening shoulders and enlarged larynx (this is the reason behind his voice "cracking" before obtaining a deeper pitch) and more prominent facial hair. Be open to questions and concerns about his changing body. If you don't know an answer, offer to work with him to find it. Assure him that what he's going through is common during this stage of his life.
A male also may experience his first ejaculations, either via masturbation or spontaneously during sleep ("wet dreams"). Talking to your son about these topics might be uncomfortable, but he'll likely have questions, and it's important for him to have a safe place to voice them. Acknowledge that it might be hard to talk about, but that these changes happen to all boys and being curious about his body is perfectly normal. It's important not to scold your child (male or female) for masturbating because this could lead to feelings of shame and a lower likelihood that they will come to you with future concerns.
Common changes in both boys and girls
As your son or daughter goes through these changes, they'll also be faced with questions about sex. Curiosities generally begin between the ages of 10 and 12; they may experiment with kissing and hugging. Around the age of 13, sex hormones rise and cause new feelings and curiosities. They may look to you for a model of how to express these feelings.
Click here for tips on talking to your tween or teen about sex.
Additionally, a common physical condition that comes along with puberty for both males and females is acne. This may be mild (blackheads and whiteheads), moderate (larger inflamed-looking blemishes) or severe (large cysts or nodules). Acne is caused by a build-up of oil, microorganisms and dead skin cells in the hair follicles under the skin.
Acne can significantly impact a teen's self image. Support them by taking them to talk to a dermatologist and encouraging good habits such as regular face washing, a healthy diet and plenty of water consumption. Talk to them about how they feel about their complexion and assure them that you're there to help.
Other areas to tune into
Today's young people also face many emotional and social challenges during puberty, including self-esteem and peer pressure. A child's self-esteem is built at an early age and greatly influenced by relationships within the family. Pressures to fit in can be difficult, and getting picked on can be traumatic.
Click here to learn more about bullying.
Another area to stay tuned into is your daughter's weight. With a higher preoccupation with appearance and weight in today's society, girls may be at risk to develop eating disorders. It's important to share healthy role models with your children, and to be one yourself. Set an example of eating well and exercising regularly; encourage your family to eat together as often as possible and to be active together too.
Overall health means more than simply being in shape and eating properly, it includes a positive mental outlook as well. Signs of depression to look for in teens include tearfulness or frequent crying, sadness or hopelessness, problems sleeping, spending too much time alone, unexplained aches and pains, loss of interest in activities, problems in school, irritability or anger, gaining or losing a lot of weight in a short period of time, undereating or overeating, fatigue and feelings of worthlessness or guilt. If you think your teen may be depressed, seek professional help right away.
Peer pressure can also lead to experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Parental involvement early can help address these concerns, so talk to your teens about these topics in their young teen years and keep talking, especially as they start driving.
When it's time to get a driver's license, make sure they know the rules—both the state's and yours as a parent. Talk about things like curfew, how many kids can be in the car, seat belts, alcohol and texting and talking on the phone. Be clear and consistent on the rules.
Also, don't forget about you! As a parent, it's important to get support and talk about your own feelings about your child growing up. Seeing your son or daughter change into an adult can cause a variety of feelings, and having a network of other moms can make this journey a bit easier. So reach out to friends or get involved in the community; you'll be happy you did.