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              kids going through puberty with acne, breasts, and tampons

              Ask Dr. Bronwyn

              Ask Dr. Bronwyn: How To Talk to Kids About Puberty

              If, like us, you learned about puberty from one awkward car conversation, our resident child development expert, Dr. Bronwyn Charlton of Seedlingsgroup, shares how we can do better for our kids. Her approach starts earlier than you think and prepares you to make the experience less overwhelming and shameful for all involved.
              Written By
              Dr. Bronwyn Charlton
              Illustration
              Loris Lora

              What Is Puberty? Signs of a Maturing Body

              Puberty kicks off when your child’s body starts to increase the production of certain hormones, which cause the ovaries to begin releasing estrogen and the testes, testosterone. These (sex) hormones are what trigger the telltale signs of puberty; breast enlargement and then menstruation in girls and testicular/penis enlargement and sperm production in boys.

              During puberty, growth hormones are also released, which is why some girls who go through puberty on the early side might enter it towering above their classmates, but end up average-size, once they get their period and long-bone growth halts. Although, height isn’t the only physical change during puberty. Growth hormones also affect the way bodies burn calories, secrete insulin, and utilize glucose, which bring about weight changes as well.

              Interestingly, the other signs typically associated with puberty like underarm and pubic hair, pimples, and body odor are actually due to hormones released from the adrenal (not sex) glands and occur six months to a few years before puberty begins. Although the physical changes of puberty follow a definite path leading to an adult body, capable of reproduction, the ages at which each stage begins and ends vary for each child, and so does the pace.

              The Timing of Puberty

              Historically, the Tanner Scale, a scale developed by a pediatrician (Tanner) from photographs taken of orphans from 1949 to 1971, was used to define the stages of puberty. Back then, the average age of girls entering puberty – or developing breast buds - was eleven, while boys were closer to twelve.

              But things have changed.

              Puberty and Girls

              Since the 1970s, the age of puberty in girls has dropped by about three months per decade and today. The beginning stages of puberty for most girls begin between the ages of 8-12 years, with budding breasts among the first signs, while the average age they get their first period, begins around 12 years of age, or two years after puberty begins. Although, it’s considered within the normal range for girls to have their first period anytime between 10 to 15 years.

              Puberty and Boys

              On average, boys start puberty about two years later than girls, around 10 to 14 years. Unlike with girls though, when this happens isn’t so obvious, since it’s a lot easier to notice breast buds developing than testicular growth, which means that parents tend to be less likely to talk about the changes happening in their bodies with their boys than with their girls.

              Puberty Is a Normal and Healthy Part of Development for Boys and Girls

              Yet speaking about the emotional and physical changes with our children can feel awkward and uncomfortable, which isn’t surprising given that for many of us, the extent of our puberty-education came from a book, left for us on our bed by mortified parents. But we can do better than that. With some preparation on our part along with various tips and tools for having these important conversations and the messages we hope to convey, we can make puberty feel less overwhelming and embarrassing for our own children.

              Start talking early. If you’re waiting until puberty to talk about puberty, you’re starting too late. It’s actually a good idea to start having these short conversations (in age-appropriate ways) years before puberty begins. Of course, if you haven’t started early, don’t despair. It’s never too late. Start now. From the time your child is a toddler, give them the correct, anatomical names for their body parts. Saying “vagina” or “pubic hair,” only is as weird as you make it and what we don’t talk about can start to feel shameful.

              Share frequent sound bites. Don’t overload. Often we can be so determined to equip our kids with comprehensive information in one fell swoop that we end up lecturing and losing them. Instead, aim to have lots of short, well-timed chats that change as your child matures. When you start early, and have the conversations frequently, by the time they’re approaching puberty, they’ll have a wealth of great information accumulated, instead of being overwhelmed by lots of new terminology and ideas all at once, when they’re in the thick of it. Plus, how can your child ask about something if they don’t have the term for it? When you begin with the easier stuff, the bigger, tougher topics feel much easier to talk about later.

              Answer questions in developmentally appropriate (but accurate) ways. Questions often come up sooner than we expect, and children want accurate answers to the things they’re curious about. Remember, that if your child’s asking a question, it means they’re interested and ready to learn.

              Seize teachable moments to talk about bodies (for both boys and girls). We do a better job talking about body image with our girls than our boys, but that’s a mistake since there’s pressure on boys as well to look a certain way during puberty, although rather than worrying about being thin-enough though, boys tend to want to be big and strong. Nevertheless, boys represent 25% of eating disorders and 50% of body dysmorphia, so we must include boys in conversations about bodies. See an image on the side of a bus, or a picture in a magazine depicting a male or female’s body, take the opportunity to discuss the message.

              Take the shame out of it. Everyone goes through puberty and while we all have varying comfort levels when it comes to broaching these subjects, not talking about the inevitable and avoiding these conversations can unintentionally infer shame. Take porn, for example. Often the extent of what a child hears from their parents about pornography is that it’s “harmful,” or “violent,” “disgusting,” and “forbidden.” So, WHEN (not if) their child sees porn on the internet, they’re left feeling like they’ve done something horrible or that they are someone horrible, especially if say, they felt aroused by it, which is frequently the case. The more we talk about things, the less big and scary they feel, and the more manageable they become.

              Be your child’s trusted source of accurate information. Whether we want them to or not, kids see and hear a lot about puberty, bodies, sex, and relationships on TV, in school and online, but not all this information is reliable. Meaning, it’s even more important that we keep talking about it at home too, so that we can clear up confusion and provide accurate, not sensational, or scary information. Sure, we may think something they want to watch is inappropriate, or that they’re not ready to know about something they’re asking, but in today’s world of easy access, if your child wants to see or know something badly enough, they’re bound to figure out a way. So, instead of “forbidding” things that interest them, you might want to sit down, and watch it with them instead. At least then you can distill the information in understandable ways and be available to discuss.

              Don’t always wait for the questions. It’s much harder to give unsolicited information than to answer children’s questions as they come up, but for some children, thanks to their temperament, questions about the tough topics rarely do, so sometimes parents must take the lead. A good way to start is with the less emotional topics, like how their body’s changing physically (e.g., height, shoe size), and from there, segue into more heavy or emotional topics as they grow. You can also use curiosity prompts, like, ‘Hey, I’m wondering whether you’ve heard of a tampon?’ and then get a sense of what they know using follow-up questions.

              Leave your puberty baggage behind. How did you experience puberty? What did your parents tell you? Were you an early bloomer? A late bloomer? Did you get made fun of for your bra size? Weight gain? Our childhood experiences influence how we parent, so check your puberty-baggage so you don’t accidentally end up dumping it on your child.

              Know your audience. What kind of child do you have? Are they dying for every detail about menstruation when you broach the subject, or do they run out of the room? Just like with anything else, it’s important to fit the delivery to the child you have. Some kids benefit from more subtle approaches and the timing/duration/information covered in these conversations must be a “good-fit.”

              Discuss the importance of hygiene. Although the development of body odor and pubic hair isn’t technically part of puberty, they happen around the same time, and consequently, hygiene issues tend to crop up during puberty. Indeed, while many kids may be showering on their own, frequently it turns out, they’re not using soap. So, ask your child how they’re washing their body in the shower. Talk about hygiene and how they present themselves.

              Fake it till you make it. During conversations with your child try not to look uncomfortable or embarrassed. If you’re clear and matter of fact from the start, they’ll be much more likely to receive the information about, for example, which hole a tampon goes in, the same way they did when you taught them how to cut their nails.

              Be calm and non-judgmental. It can be hard not to lecture, particularly when we’re anxious, embarrassed, and uncomfortable, but the goal of these conversations should be not only to become a reliable source of information, but also to encourage your child to come to you with anything. So, try not to interrogate, castigate, freak out, shout, get upset or lecture so they will.

              Use your do-overs. Of course, we all mess up. We get emotional when we promised ourselves, we’d stay calm, yell and lecture when we were trying to be an empathic resource and end up saying something we wish we hadn’t or that doesn’t land well. That’s normal and expected, and when it happens, go back, and do-it-over. Try again.

              Breathe. Lots of these conversations might feel stressful, but instead of letting them get you riled up and emotional, take a deep breath. By doing some deep breathing, not only are you buying yourself time, but you’re also allowing space for your child to benefit from your integrated nervous system and feel calmer themselves.

              Talk puberty to boys and girls together. Often, boys and girls are taught separately about puberty in school, with girls hearing mostly about periods and body image and boys about erections and body hair. But by separating kids by biological sex and covering only the supposed gender-specific topics, we end up making everyone feel like puberty for the other group is disgusting and off-limits. Not to mention the fact that doing so leaves out trans and nonbinary kids.

              Don’t forget the emotional side of puberty. It’s easy to talk about facts (like growth spurts, periods, and pubic hair) but don’t forget the emotional changes that come along with the hormone and brain changes and how they’ll feel about puberty too. Make these chats feel intimate and engaging and relevant.

              Outsource to quality resources. There are many quality resources available so by all means, go ahead and outsource too. Maybe something on a TV show will spark a conversation, or they’ll have questions about something they read in a book. Read a book about puberty together, or read it first yourself, and then talk about questions they have, or topics you found interesting.

              Books About Puberty For Kids

              Also, it's important to read all books before you share them with your child, so you’re prepared to answer questions and have conversations about the content.

              The Boy’s Body Book by Kelli Dunham

              Guy Stuff: The Body Book for Boys & Guy Stuff: Feelings Book (American Girl)  

              The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls (American Girl) 

              It’s Not the Stork! by Robie H. Harris

              It’s So Amazing: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families by Robie H. Harris

              It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health (Ages 10 and up) by Robie H. Harris

              Resources About Puberty for Adults

              Decoding Boys: New Science Behind the Subtle Art of Raising by Cara Natterson, M.D.