Puberty is daunting. Emotions change, bodies change, mentalities change, social interactions change, routines change, expectations change, abilities change, and identities change. Puberty is a tectonic shift and it can be exciting, but it also hurts. So much change happening in a short time span is always painful. Not all of the new experiences puberty brings are positive and some of things of childhood that start to fade away are precious and loved. Puberty in many ways is like running a gauntlet and how we survive the trials we face inform the adults we will become.
As a parent, when I consider puberty in my child, it’s hard not to return to my own pubescent experiences–experiences which are difficult and painful and make it hard to face the reality of puberty in my own child. Thankfully I have some time to grapple with that, but maybe you don’t. Or maybe you’re looking at your first grader and already seeing signs of puberty. Early onset of puberty is becoming more common and in general puberty is starting younger and younger.
There are serious costs to a child developing earlier than their peers. Research clearly shows that girls especially face lasting mental health risks, but boys are not immune either. Early physical changes can cause children trying to build a foundation of communal belonging to become isolated and internalize that isolation as personal shame. They may start to shy away from taking social risks or go the other direction and engage in highly risky behavior. But I think most parents intuitively understand that puberty carries a lot of risk and potential for harm.
So how do we equip our kids to navigate these stormy waters and utilize positive coping strategies? Especially when they are facing this mountain of changes before their peers? We talk to them. As parents, it’s important to equip our kids with knowledge before they’re facing down an unknown landscape. Understanding that bodies change and how they change ahead of time can help your child proactively frame those changes instead of experiencing a lack of control when their bodies inspire new social responses from others. This means talking about bodies when your kid is 6 years old. Or younger. Start the conversations young and add nuance and subject matter as they get older.
Parents, this is hard. I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly have a model of excellence for these kinds of conversations myself. When I think about talking to my child about sexual development, sex, consent, and the attentions of adults, I freely admit it scares the crap out of me. How do I frame puberty with positivity and without sacrificing complexity? How do I share the lessons I learned from my own traumatic experiences without causing secondary traumatic stress? The answer to these questions is remarkably similar to the above paragraph: talk about it. Find your safe spaces to have these conversations–be they with trusted friends, parent support groups, your child’s doctor, a therapist, your life partner, your own parents, your siblings, or a journal. Going through the exercise of putting words to experiences and emotions is the training ground for these conversations with your kid. Added benefit: your child also learns early how to verbalize experiences and emotions.
Check out this article from NPR on early puberty and scroll down to the bottom for a couple of book recommendations you can read with your child. Need more resources? Talk to your child’s PCP and/or get in touch with your local library. The Multnomah County library staff has compiled this list of books about puberty and this list about sex education for kids. Or check out this flip book! If you need help navigating these stormy waters, please reach out.