While teens are struggling with puberty, parents struggle with how to help. The first step is to understand the changes that your child will undergo during this turbulent time. Your bonds with your child might even get stronger.
by Shannon Philpott
Your son's voice is changing, your daughter's chest is developing, and as a parent, you're not sure how to help your children weather the physical and emotional storm that is brewing.
Puberty is often portrayed as an obstacle, but if addressed in a positive manner, these changes can build stronger relationships between you and your child.
Primarily, as a parent, it is crucial for you to understand the changes that will affect your child during puberty. It is more than just body changes—puberty affects your child's mental state, emotional state, and social wellbeing.
Ralph I. Lopez, M.D., a pioneer in the field of adolescent medicine in New York, recommends child rearing styles that foster open discussions about these changes, detailed in his The Teen Health Book: A Parents' Guide to Adolescent Health and Well-Being.
Glandular changes. With the onset of sexual changes, the apocrine sweat glands begin to proliferate, accompanied by increased sweating in the sexual areas—the groin and armpits. During this time, it may be necessary to remind teenagers about the importance of proper hygiene, cleansing, and deodorant application.
Skin changes. Acne is most associated with puberty. It is an inevitable part of growing up. Parents should not ignore the need for treatment by a dermatologist if chronic acne persists.
Male growth pattern. It is during this time that parents often notice just how fast a young boy will grow. Hands and feet typically experience a growth spurt faster than the rest of the body. As a result, adolescent boys often lose grace while adjusting to their changing bodies.
According to Lopez, boys are often concerned about height and want to be athletically strong. "A good rule of thumb is to allow them to develop mentally," Lopez said. Parents should also avoid scrutinizing these changes and thereby causing undue anxiety for young adolescent boys.
Female growth pattern. Young girls may develop faster but in less noticeable ways than young boys. In terms of physical development, "sixth grade girls are comparable to eighth grade boys," Lopez said.
The emotional adjustment to menstruation, breast development, and pubic hair growth add to the anxiety of the pubescence phase.
"Girls are going through awkward stages and on average will put on 35 pounds of weight," Lopez said. "Girls see themselves in a society where looking good in a swimsuit is a must. Our image of what is terrific is tainted by Hollywood images and we encourage this society of dieting."
How parents can help
While teens are struggling with physical, mental, and social changes, parents often struggle with how to help. "Let kids be kids," Lopez said. "We haven't allowed our children to be children. Let them take their time developing."
Lopez also recommends fostering a family culture that promotes discussion about the changes that occur during puberty. "The best way to embodiment is to get to know what our children are about," Lopez said. "Have dinner with them, sit down with them, and get to know them."
These discussions work best with a same-gender approach. "There are certain discussions that are best handled by adults of the same gender as their teen," Lopez said. "Teenagers want to hear it from an adult who has gone through a similar experience."
Dr. Paul C. Reisser, a family physician in private practice in Southern California and author of The Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care, recommends that parents recognize that puberty begins the onset of "emotional drama" for many teens. Children need to know that swift mood swings and a lack of confidence are common, Reisser said.
"Many children enter the preteen and teen years unprepared for the gamut of changes and challenges that await them," Reisser said. "As a result, a grade-schooler may enter adolescence happy and well-adjusted and within a few short years emerge battered, bruised, and thoroughly discouraged—along with the rest of the family."
Validating your child's feelings and sharing your experiences will also help teens and pre-teens to embrace the changes.
"Give your kid the vocabulary to talk about what their feeling. Validate it," Reisser said.
"Feelings come to you no matter what. You feel your feelings. The last thing that helps is for someone to tell you not to feel that feeling."
Shannon Philpott is a writer/reporter with 10-plus years of experience, and a college journalism instructor. She maintains a blog about writing, reflecting, and teaching at shannonphilpott.com.