Parents may be more than a little uneasy with this transitional period in their son's or daughter's life. They're not sure what to expect. How can they tell when their youngster is entering puberty? What should they tell their child about it?
"Puberty is such a nebulous term," says Sloan Beth Karver, MD, assistant clinical professor of Primary Education and Community Service at Allegheny University in Philadelphia. "It happens over such a long span of time that it's hard for a parent to know exactly when a child enters puberty. Certainly there are hormonal changes even before a parent may see any outward sign." But outward signs soon do become apparent.
Kids entering puberty are growing very fast -- so fast they may lose their sense of personal space. As a result, they can be pretty clumsy. They tip over glasses with their elbows, walk into door frames, and literally trip over their own two fast-growing feet.
They may be embarrassed by hair sprouting in unlikely places, and devastated when they break out in pimples. Emotionally, some kids are ready to tackle the world but, at the same time, they're also too shy to pick up the phone and make a date.
Girls, who begin to mature earlier than boys, often feel both self-conscious and proud of their changing bodies. Boys cringe when they speak with a voice that cracks and yodels. But they like growing taller and more muscular.
Both boys and girls experience emotions that are stronger than those in their pasts. They root passionately for the home team, cry desperately over a friend's perceived snub, and loathe driving Dad's eight-year-old (way uncool) sedan.
They may rage against your house rules, a curfew, a refusal to increase their allowance. Not fair, they yell as they slam the door shut.
Welcome to your teenager's puberty -- the growth spurts, menstruation, ejaculation, pubic hair, body hair, flight toward independence, hero worship, puppy love, and everything else that goes along with it!
So how do you help your teen cope with the astonishing physical and emotional upheaval of puberty? How? You prepare ahead of time.
Some of the more important conversations you will have with your teen are about puberty. Kids can feel mighty threatened at times by the process of becoming an adult. (It's scary to leave the comfort and security of childhood!) Their unease is heightened when they pick up information from their friends about "stuff" that sounds "gross" and "weird." So that's where you come in, parents.
It's your job to explain puberty to your teenager in a way that makes the change seem quite normal. After all, it is normal! Spelling out the process makes the inevitable physical changes predictable, and therefore more acceptable. Experts say that it's best to discuss the process before puberty is upon your son or daughter. A good time to talk, they say, is when kids are preadolescent -- even before middle school.
These conversations don't have to be a big, formal deal. Instead, look for opportunities that daily living presents. Perhaps you could reflect on a TV commercial that advertises sanitary pads, comment on the birth of a neighbor's baby, or mention the fact that 17-year-old Cousin Kenny is trying to grow a mustache. Talk about your own puberty: your problem with acne, what your mother told you about menstruation, when you learned to shave, your first date. Or, perhaps, just listen.
Keep your talks short, but let your teen know that you think the information is important. Do not go off into a long "birds-and-bees" lecture that may overwhelm your teenager with too much information at once.
Understand that your son or daughter may need you now more than ever -- and be too confused, embarrassed, or shy to broach the subject of puberty. Make a point of telling your teen that he or she can talk to you about anything.
Because your teenager is at an age when it's normal and expected for him or her to begin establishing some independence, it becomes your job to keep a dialogue going on these topics.
"It's very important for parents to keep the lines of communication open, so that their child can ask for help if it's needed," says Dr. Karver. "And, in today's society, sometimes it's needed desperately."
"The next best thing," she says, "is for a child to have a nice relationship with the family doctor. If a child is not comfortable discussing a situation or problem with parents, he or she can ask the doctor for direction or guidance."