Does it seem like your once-sweet child freaks out anytime you ask a question? Is your kid embarrassed by everything you do? Welcome to puberty! While not every child experiences puberty the same way, many do go through the characteristic mood swings and will pull away from you to develop their independence. “One of the most important things for parents to do is to continue to be open and flexible about your relationship so kids feel they can talk to you about anything,” says Kelly Gilrain, PhD, chief psychologist, Cooper University Health Care. “Your kids are adjusting to changes in the brain which cause intense emotions that they may not yet know how to manage.”
Of course, puberty also involves physical changes. Girls develop breast buds, while boys experience testicular growth. These initial signs are followed by the growth of pubic hair, a voice change in boys, the first period for girls, body shape changes and a growth spurt. “You may not necessarily see some of these changes if your child is becoming more private,” says Sari Bentsianov, MD, section chief of adolescent medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “That’s why it’s really important kids are being seen every year by their pediatricians so we can make sure your child is developing as expected.” Here’s how to help your child navigate the ups and downs of puberty:
WATCH FOR THE SIGNS
Puberty begins when you notice physical changes. Girls typically begin puberty between the ages of 8 to 13, while boys begin between the ages of 9 to 14—though it’s also normal for some kids to start earlier or later. Timing is largely regulated by genetics, says Bentsianov. Puberty usually occurs during a two-year span, ending when the physical changes are complete. If your daughter hasn’t started her period by age 16 or your son hasn’t shown changes by age 14, talk to your pediatrician.
In rare cases, kids may start puberty at even younger ages, a condition called precocious puberty, with girls showing signs before age 8 and boys before age 9. “There can be many causes, some of which need intervention, some don’t,” says Bentsianov. Sometimes the cause can’t be found, while
rarely, there may be an underlying infection, hormone disorder or tumor.
Talk to your pediatrician if your child’s development seems earlier than you expected, or if you’re concerned that your child hasn’t yet started.
RECOGNIZE YOUR CHILD’S BRAIN IS CHANGING
Your kid isn’t being moody because he or she hates you (although that can definitely feel like the case during meltdowns!). “During puberty, the brain is solidifying neural connections and learning how to regulate emotions and develop reasoning and decision-making skills,” says Gilrain. “But with all the flux and changes in hormones, kids really don’t know what’s going on or how to label or deal with these intense emotions.”
As parents, our role is to help our kids learn to identify emotions, put them into words and teach them how to manage them, says Gilrain. For example, when your kid comes home from school distraught, ask, “Do you know why you’re upset?” Listen and accept what he or she is saying, then offer something neutral, such as, “It sounds like this is really stressful for you,” or “It sounds like you’re really upset.”
KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON
Although it can be tough for parents to do, remaining calm is key when kids are flipping out. “You want to show them how to process the emotions when they’re upset,” says Gilrain. If your child is crying because some kid at school looked at him or her “weird,” don’t say, “That’s silly to be upset about that.” Instead, acknowledge what they’re feeling. Kids at this age feel like they’re constantly on stage, and they worry they’re being scrutinized and judged by everyone for everything.
But don’t try to fix things. For example, if your kid says the teacher said something upsetting, don’t immediately fire off an angry email. “Coach your kids on how to advocate for themselves because that’s how they learn to problem-solve,” says Gilrain. “You need to help promote their independence, not take over for them.”
MAKE SLEEP A PRIORITY
Teens need much more sleep than you (or they!) think they do. “If left to their own devices, they’ll be up playing video games all night,” says Gilrain. “But they need to be rested to help them manage emotions.” It may seem impossible, but make sure that they’re putting away electronic devices by around 9 pm, or an hour before they sleep, at a central location. Check in to see that they’re getting enough sleep and that they understand healthy expectations for sleep, while still allowing them some independence.
REINFORCE FAMILY RULES
Kids of all ages need boundaries, so don’t shy away from reiterating family rules. For example, explain that your child can be angry about a situation, but they can’t break things in their room or act out on their younger siblings, says Gilrain. Offer alternatives such as taking a break from homework or going for a walk. Your job is to model how to work through strong emotions when kids don’t have the words or skills yet.
Start an open conversation with them about your family’s values. “Talk about things that matter, and let them explore, but reassure them you’re a safe space they can always come back to,” says Bentsianov. “They need to feel like you’re a trusted resource, no matter how old they are. Many kids will still look to you for advice.”
Finally, know your kid’s friends. Invite them over for dinner and make sure you’re in touch with the friend’s parents, says Gilrain. Talk to your kids about what’s going on with their friends. Ask them to show you what social media they follow, or start a family text chain where you share videos or other social media posts with each other.
KNOW WHEN TO GET HELP
Not all kids will act like they’re on an emotional roller coaster. “There’s a spectrum of mood changes,” says Bentsianov. Moodiness and a desire to separate from you is common. However, you know your kid. If anything seems out of the ordinary for your child—eating or sleeping more or less, isolating from everyone, grades slipping or moods impacting their ability to function—it’s time to get outside help from your pediatrician, school guidance counselor or therapist.
The good news is, while all parents worry and occasionally have self-doubt, in all likelihood, your kid is going to be just fine. And eventually, your child will put the sometimes-stormy years of puberty behind them with a little guidance (and a lot of patience) from you.