Kids and Puberty. What’s it all About and How Can Parents Help Their Child to Thrive and Not Just Survive

Kids and Puberty. What’s it all About and How Can Parents Help Their Child to Thrive and Not Just Survive

Puberty can be a tough time for parents. It is a time of change – major change – when kids change from being a child to an adult. Which means that their body is changing in a major way and their brain as well.

Over the next five to ten years, your child’s body is programmed to become independent and ready to leave the nest. So expect them to want to have their own social media accounts, to hang out with their friends a lot more, to have their own phone, to start dating and to even start thinking about having sex.

But even though your child is programmed to become independent, this is the time where they actually need you more than ever before. The times have changed, you see. Puberty itself hasn’t really changed much but the world that kids grow up in, has changed dramatically.

Sex is talked about on a daily basis in the media, in advertising, in the music that we listen to and on the tv shows that we watch. Which means that your child is receiving a lot of mixed messages about sex from a number of different sources. This is the time that your child needs you to help guide them through all the mixed messages that they’re receiving about love, sex and relationships. This is your opportunity to shine, and to share with your child what sexual behaviours and attitudes are okay (and not okay) in your family and why. The ‘why’ is really important as it helps your child to understand why you believe what you believe. And when they get around to working out what their own set of values are, they will reflect back on what you have shared with them.

Think of yourself as a lighthouse. It is your beacon or guiding light that will help your child to navigate the murky waters of adolescence, and to come through to the other side, as a well adjusted healthy young adult who is capable of making the right decisions about love, sex and relationships.

This article has been written to complement my previous article My Kid Needs to Know What? An Age By Age Guide to Sex Education – And What to Do! and Karen Young’s article Phew! It’s Normal. An Age by Age Guide for What to Expect From Kids & Teens – And What They Need From Us. It will provide more detailed information about puberty and how you can support your child at this important time in their life.

What puberty is (a quick refresher).

Simply, puberty is that time when you grow up and change from being a child to an adult. Your body changes, the way you think and feel changes, and your relationships with family and friends changes too. These changes happen because your body is preparing you to start the next generation. So it needs to get you ready to make babies and to care for them.

Our hormones are responsible for making all these changes.

When your body reaches a certain age, size and shape, the part of your brain called the hypothalamus, starts to increase production of a hormone called GnRH – the gonadotrophin-releasing hormone. This hormone is important because it then sends a special chemical message to the pituitary gland, telling it to release the growth hormones into our bloodstream.

The pituitary gland is a small pea-sized gland that sits at the base of the brain. It then releases two hormones called the follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and the luteinising hormone (LH). They then tell the testes (in boys) and ovaries (in girls) to start working.

In boys, the pituitary gland sends FSH and LH through the blood stream to the testes, telling them to start producing a hormone called testosterone and to start making sperm. Testosterone is the hormone that causes most of the changes in a boy’s body during puberty.

In girls, the pituitary gland sends FSH and LH through the blood stream to the ovaries, telling them to start producing the hormones called oestrogen and progesterone, and for the ovaries to start releasing the ova (eggs). Her body will also start to change so that she is ready for pregnancy.

All of these changes happen quite slowly over a number of years. As a parent, it might feel as if puberty has happened overnight, but it actually hasn’t.

When to start talking.

Most parents don’t think of puberty until they start to see changes in their own child or in their child’s friends. Or they think of it as ‘the talk’ ie one big talk where you tell them everything they need to know in one long drawn out conversation.

We now know that ‘the talk’ doesn’t work and that kids learn better from having many open and honest ongoing conversations. Which means that parents need to be having many conversations about puberty and not just the one!

So what does this look like in the everyday home?

It might mean that your 3 year old comes into your bedroom when you’re getting dressed and asks ‘Why do you have hair down there?’. And you tell them that all grownups have hair down there, and that one day, they will to.

Or your 5 year old’s favourite book is Hair in Funny Places by Babette Cole, and they are eagerly awaiting for Mr and Mrs Hormones to wake up grumpy and to start making puberty happen for them. And you tell them that puberty will happen to them one day too, but not just yet!

Or your 7 year old walks into the bathroom whilst your changing your tampon and asks ‘Why are you bleeding?’. And you tell them that it’s called a period, that it’s normal and is something that happens to all girls when they grow up.

Or your 11 year old asks if she can wear a bra because all her friends are starting to wear them. And you talk about the fact that puberty starts at a different time for everyone, and that when she starts to grow breasts, that she too can wear a bra as well.

By answering your child’s questions and talking about puberty openly and honestly, you are letting your child know that puberty will one day happen to them. You’re also normalising it and making puberty sound like an everyday thing, instead of something to be afraid of.

Eventually though, the time comes where you need to do more than just normalise. Instead you need to start preparing your child by talking more specifically and with more detail, about the changes that will happen and how to care for their new body. The challenge though, is in knowing when to start adding in the details.

When puberty starts.

Puberty actually starts a few years before you’ll actually see any physical changes. Which means that technically, puberty can start anytime between the ages of 8 to 15 for girls, and 9 to 15 for boys. Which explains why you might start to see some moodiness in your child well before you see any actual changes to their body.

We don’t usually any physical changes in girls until they are between 11 and 13 years of age (plus or minus a few years). Boys usually start a few years later than girls, with their changes being seen anywhere between 12 to 13 years (plus or minus a few years).

Some of the early signs for girls that you might see could be the budding of breasts, the start of pubic or underarm hair, a growth spurt where they may seemingly outgrow their clothes or shoes overnight, mood swings, or their hips start to grow wider.

Some of the early signs for boys that you may see could be mood swings, a growth spurt where they seemingly outgrow their clothes or shoes overnight, they start to grow pubic hair, or sweat and smell of body odour.

Which means that if your daughter is between 11-13 or your son between 12-13 years old, or you’ve started to see changes in them or their classmates, then it’s time to start preparing your child i.e. giving them more detailed information about what is coming up.

What changes happen during puberty.

Puberty doesn’t start at the same time for everyone. You just have to look at your child’s classmates to see that. Some of the girls may be growing breasts whilst others are still flat chested. Some of the boys will be quite tall whilst others are still very short.

No one can predict when exactly puberty will start for your child, as it starts at a different time for every child. So whilst some kids might be the first one in their class to start and others may be the last one to start, they all get there in the end. By the time they are 16 or 17 years old, they all have adult bodies and puberty is officially over.

Knowing what changes will happen to your child is helpful, as it means that you know what to expect. Plus you can be ready to talk about the changes before or as they happen.

Changes that can happen in both girl’s and boy’s bodies are:

  • Growth spurts, ie taller and heavier
  • Pimples or acne
  • Voices deepen
  • Hair and skin becomes oilier
  • Arm and leg hair becomes a little thicker
  • Armpit and pubic hair begins to grow
  • Body odour becomes stronger
  • Hands and feet grow bigger and longer

Girls will also:

  • Develop breasts
  • Grow wider at the hips, with rounder thighs and bottoms
  • Start their periods (menstruation)

Boys will also:

  • Grow taller, heavier and more muscular, with shoulders and chest growing wider
  • Have more erections often when they least expect (or want) them
  • Have wet dreams and begin to ejaculate semen
  • Penis, testicles and scrotum will grow bigger

What do kids need to know (and how to support them).

•  Their body will be changing.

Your child needs to know what changes will be happening to their body, preferably before they have already happened. This way your child will know what to expect and won’t be frightened by them when they unexpectedly turn up.

So they need to know about all the physical changes that will occur. Thing slike:pimples, oily hair/skin, sweating, body odour, new hair, voice changes, growing taller, gaining weight, vaginal discharge, periods, breasts, erections, ejaculation, wet dreams, bigger penis and testicles.

The support they need.

As well as knowing what changes to expect to their body, your child will need some advice on how to care for their new body. Routines that we see as everyday e.g. putting deodorant on at the start of our day, is new for your child. So they will need to be told what to do and to be reminded whilst they adapt to incorporating these new routines into their everyday life. Don’t forget to tell them that the opposite sex goes through puberty as well, and that some of their changes will be different to what is happening to them.

Books are a fantastic resource to use, and the right book for boys or girls means that you don’t need to remember all the details.

•  Their feelings and relationships with people will change.

Puberty isn’t just about changing bodies. There are a whole lot of changes happening on the inside too, that are preparing your child for all the responsibilities of being an adult. Which means that the way your child thinks and feels will also change too.

So your child needs to know that sometimes they might feel as if their going crazy. One moment they might be happy about something and then later on they might feel as if it is the end of the world. This is due to the fluctuations in the level of their hormones. As they increase and decrease, they impact on how they feel about themselves and others.

To learn more about the important development your child’s brain will doing as they go through puberty, you can refer to Karen’s article The Adolescent Brain – What All Teens Need to Know. It is worth a read. Knowing what is going on inside your child’s brain, can help with understanding (and living with) their behaviour.

The support they need.

Your child needs to know that they may be feeling some mixed emotions as they go through puberty. This is a normal part of puberty and will be happening to their friends as well. Make sure that they know that they can talk to you about anything, no matter what! Sharing your feelings with someone you trust can help.

•  They will be fertile.

The end goal of puberty is for your child to be capable of making a baby and to be able to care for it.  So girls needs to know that once their periods start, that they could become pregnant if they have unprotected sexual intercourse with a boy. Boys need to know that once they begin to ejaculate, that they could father a child if they have unprotected sexual intercourse with a girl. Having sex is a huge responsibility.

The support they need.

Your child needs to know that they will be fertile once their period starts or when they start to ejaculate semen. They need to know how babies are made and how they can be prevented. Now, by this age, it is highly likely that your child will have already heard about sex. So if you haven’t already talked to them about sex, don’t be surprised if they already know about it. And don’t forget to let them know that adults have sex for other reasons too, like for fun, or because it feels good. This is that time to also share your own thoughts on love, and when sex could happen in a relationship. You can’t stop your child from be sexually active but you can provide them with some guidance so that at the time, they are making the right decision for them.

•  They will start to experience sexual feelings.

Puberty is that age when kids start to see sex as something that they might want to do. The hormones that make your child fertile will also make sure that your child will want to do what they need to do, to become pregnant. So they will start to experience sexual thoughts and may begin to masturbate for the first time or more often. Boys may have a lot more erections than normal, often when least expected, and they may experience wet dreams (nocturnal emissions).

The support they need.

Your child needs to know that they may start to have sexy thoughts and feel attracted to the opposite or same sex. For some kids, these feelings may be stronger or weaker than in others. It can be normal for some kids to not feel these feelings at all. Sexy thoughts and feelings are a normal part of growing up. Acting on these feelings with a partner is a huge responsibility and it is best to wait until older. Some kids will masturbate, whilst others won’t. Both are normal. Masturbation isn’t harmful unless it starts to interfere with your day to day life.

•  That they’re normal.

Many kids feel as if they are alone as they go through puberty. They feel that they’re the only one getting pimples, breasts, or badly timed erections. They see themselves as looking different to their friends, especially if they are the first or the last to start changing.

The support they need.

Your child needs to know that puberty happens to everyone and that their friends are going through the same thing too. Some kids start sooner and some kids start latter. Some kids will change quickly and some kids will change more slowly. Everyone is different but their body is programmed to do what’s right for them.

Remind them that puberty happens slowly over a number of years, so they will have plenty of time to get used to their new body and being a grown up. And before they know it, it’ll all be over.

The more that they know about puberty, the more prepared and accepting they will be for the changes that are coming their way.

And finally…

Kids who are prepared for puberty are more likely to find it a breeze than a hurricane. And that includes you too. By knowing what to expect from puberty, you can support your child as they go through this major stage of change. And by talking to them, you’re letting them know that they can turn to you at any time for the support, guidance and information that they’ll need.

So don’t see puberty as a loss of childhood. See it as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship and your connection with your child. And enjoy watching your child blossom into an adult to be proud of!

If you need some extra help on how to talk about puberty, then my two books Boy Puberty: How to Talk about Puberty and Sex with your Tween Boy or Girl Puberty: How to Talk about Puberty and Sex with your Tween Girl, will help you out.


About the Author: Cath Hakanson

Cath Hakanson is a mother, nurse, sex educator, author and founder of Sex Ed Rescue. Bringing her 20+ years clinical knowledge, a practical down-to-earth approach, and passion for helping families, Cath inspires parents to talk to their kids about sex so that kids can talk to their parents about anything! Sex Ed Rescue arms parents with the tools, advice and tips to make sex education a normal part of everyday life. Get her free ‘12 Puberty Conversation Starters’ that will help you to start talking about puberty with your child today.

Find Cath on Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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