No matter when a child goes through puberty, it can be a time full of questions and worries and comparison: “Ethan’s voice already dropped, so why am I still squeaking?” “When will I get my period?” “When can I start shaving?”
When puberty comes early, though, it can be especially nerve-wracking. It’s never easy to be the first in a peer group to go through something, let alone something as confusing as puberty. The effects can go beyond mild distress: A 2018 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that girls who entered puberty much earlier than their peers faced a higher risk of mental health concerns, including depression, and the issues can last into adulthood.
Kelsey Torgerson Dunn, a child and adolescent anxiety specialist at Compassionate Counseling in St. Louis, acknowledges that parents, too, can experience anxiety: How can I talk to my child about the changes going on in their body in the best possible way? Sometimes, it might seem easier to avoid the talk all together rather than risk doing it wrong.
“The thing is, there really isn’t an incorrect way to start an open-ended conversation,” Dunn says. “I encourage parents to start with asking their kids what they already know or have heard about puberty. This gives them an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings and to ensure that they’re going over any missing pieces.”
Dunn says it’s especially helpful when talking about puberty to a younger child to review what she calls the “Private Parts Rules”:
No touching other people’s private parts.
No looking at other people’s private parts.
No showing your private parts to other people.
No acting or talking in “grown up” ways to make other people feel uncomfortable.
It is ok to touch your own private parts as long as it’s in private and doesn’t take too much time.
As children mature, Dunn points out, families may choose to return to the discussion.
“There may be some conversation around family rules for when you are old enough to engage in the safe exploration of other people’s private parts,” she says.
“This is a great opportunity for parents to talk with their pre-teens. As a family, you can ask, ‘When is your child is old enough to date, or be kissed, or engage in sexual touching behaviours? What are their thoughts on appropriate ages for these things? Why?’”
Resources to help
Dunn shares two resources she likes to help kids navigate puberty: the American Girl puberty book, The Care & Keeping of You, and the YouTube series WellCast, which has some excellent puberty videos, ranging from introductory videos for boys and girls to topics more appropriate for older teens, such as dating and losing your virginity. There are also videos about coming out, dealing with embarrassment, self-esteem and getting out of a bad relationship.
“Precocious puberty” is when puberty hits before age 8 in girls or 9 in boys. If, for example, your daughter starts going through puberty at age 5, she may get her first period around second grade. Boys who experience early puberty may be shorter than expected as adults because they finish growing at an earlier age than their peers. This can make them worried about going to high school and still looking like a little boy.
In these more extreme cases, hormones can help. According to Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago, paediatric endocrinologists can suggest treatment to suppress puberty for kids who develop early: The child would receive injections every three months or a yearly implant.
The important thing is to keep your child informed. According to Rush, “Explain that these changes are normal for older kids and teens, but his or her body is maturing on a different schedule.”
Louise Greenspan, a pediatric endocrinologist at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, advocates talking to kids about sexual development by age 6 or 7.
“Starting the conversation when kids are young and keeping lines of communication open can make the transition less scary,” she tells NPR.
The way to handle any discomfort around the topic is to acknowledge it and explain why ongoing conversations about puberty and sexual development are so important.
Puberty calls for the same good parenting skills as any other age: being emotionally available to kids through their developmental milestones, witnessing their growing pains, and providing comfort when life throws them curveballs … Scientific evidence shows this kind of parental support helps foster emotional resilience, and that bolsters kids’ health and relationships for years to come.
So the point isn’t to have all the answers; the point is to be there.