Recent research shows that children are reaching puberty at a younger age than ever before — which makes it even more important to start a conversation early.
In just a month or so, the school year will be about halfway over. But for some third graders, something radical will just be starting: puberty.
Though we generally think of puberty as a stage that children enter closer to the teen years, a recent study reported in The New York Times found that at age 8, almost one-third of girls were in the early stages, with boys an average of two years behind.
Why puberty is starting earlier now than in the past, especially for girls, is a mystery. Some researchers suggest that the cause may be related to exposure to certain chemicals, such as PCBs and phthalates (commonly found in plastics), which break down into substances that are similar to estrogen once inside the body. Others suggest the phenomenon is caused by overexposure to soy, which is in many foods and can also mimic estrogen. Additional suspects include hormones consumed through the milk or meat from animals treated with such substances to spur their growth and overconsumption of food.
Whatever the reason, understanding and handling puberty can be difficult for children of any age. But the challenges they face during this time are compounded by the fact that most school programs — and caring parents, as well — often do not educate about puberty until kids are older, which is after a great many of them have started experiencing (or witnessing) the signs of adolescence. You can help ease your child’s transition into this stage by having your initial few conversations on the topic with her early on, keeping in mind that there will likely be more down the road as she grows and develops.
The Earlier the Better
If you ask parents when they think children should learn about puberty, most agree: before changes start. But the tricky part is knowing the appropriate age for that kind of chat and how to start it. Ideally, parents should begin these discussions around ages 6 to 8. The point is to reduce the potential surprise, and shame, of the experience when it begins. (Remember, this is puberty education, not sex education.) Children this age are mature enough to understand bodily functions, and young enough that they have probably not yet experienced changes or been misinformed by their peers about how puberty works.
It’s important to remember that even if you don’t notice any obvious signs of maturing in your child, they may be occurring anyway. Many first changes are “hidden” (like increased moodiness, enlargement of the sex organs, pubic hair growth) and are scary for children who feel alone as they occur. If your child is 8 or older, don’t delay, but don’t worry, either. His increased maturity and natural interest in what he’s going through or seeing in classmates may make him an eager listener. Late bloomers also benefit from knowledge about puberty’s changes — it helps them to feel confident about what’s ahead and allows them to keep up with the social banter of their more developed peers.
What to Say
While it’s natural to feel unsure about how to begin, or even embarrassed, you want to be the prime source of your child’s knowledge. Having an open dialogue on the topic from the beginning can help make sure that your child gets authentic and reassuring information. If you leave it to his peers, odds are they’ll fill his head with rumors and distortions — which can only increase his anxiety.
Think of the process as one that unfolds. You’re in a marathon, not a sprint, so provide layers of information that you build on over time. Your child may be the one to start the dialogue by asking questions about things she sees or hears. Try to give her the whole picture for both genders at the start. Don’t be shy to admit when you don’t know an answer — look it up together. If she asks a question you’re not ready to handle, you can buy some time by being honest and simply saying, “Let me think about how to answer that.”
Respond to your child’s questions as they arise, but also bring up the topic yourself. First, brush up on the subject so you feel comfortable as a source of knowledge. Look for teachable moments, which may come up when bathing a younger sibling or watching TV. Talking in the car when both of you are facing forward, instead of while making direct eye contact, can help set your child at ease and lend a sense of informality to the subject. If she doesn’t reach out to you first, this four-step framework can help you approach her:
• Observe: Notice ways your child is changing, physically or emotionally. Subtle shifts may appear obvious when you take the time to look for them.
• Connect: Your child may feel embarrassed, confused, or alone, either because he feels like the only one changing, or the opposite! Acknowledge how hard these feelings must be.
• Guide: Bring out a book to read together or share stories of your own.
• Support: Give your child the power to find out more on her own. Let her explore a (prescreened) website herself or invite her to share changes she’s noticed in herself or her friends.
Having an idea of the physical changes that both genders experience during this phase and sharing that knowledge with your child can help make things easier for both of you as you face the changes together. But to fully understand the process, you need to connect the physical changes with the psychological changes.
Inside Her Head: Puberty in Girls
All eyes are on the girls who begin puberty first. For them, there is tremendous embarrassment. The development of breasts, the need for a bra, or a growth spurt before their friends or boys in their grade draws a great deal of unwanted attention. While parents may try to comfort these girls by telling them how proud they are of how grown-up they are becoming, the reality is that these children often feel very alone in their experiences. They typically do not yet have friends to commiserate with about the confusing changes, they often lack role models to prepare them for the changes, and they tend to become the object of girl-envy or boy-teasing.
Late bloomers, on the other hand, are forced to watch with envy the changes that are occurring in their friends. They wonder if something is wrong with them, if they are normal, if it will ever happen to them. They feel left out of group conversations about body changes and boys, and worry that if they try to participate, they will either be ridiculed or will misspeak and draw further attention to their underdeveloped status.
Be There for Her
More important than the words you say is your open and caring attitude as you support your daughter in facing these confusing changes, whether she develops earlier or later. When it comes time for her to start wearing a bra, for instance, putting a tank top camisole on under her clothing can be a good transition step. If she expresses the desire to do so because her friends are all wearing them, there’s no reason not to let her try out a simple training bra. Your daughter may also reach a point at which she wants to shave her legs or underarms. Unless she is unusually hairy or dark-haired, which might make her self-conscious, there’s generally no reason why she should need to shave. That’s a decision you can work out together. Many girls at this stage also want to start dressing in clothing that may be too mature for their age. If that’s the case with your child, you might explain that as children get older, the responsibilities and the pressures they face also increase. When kids try to look or act older, they often have to face these pressures when they are not ready to handle them and shouldn’t have to. Point out that teenagers take more personal responsibility, and help her find age-appropriate ways to do the same, like walking home from school on her own. Perhaps the most dramatic change is when she begins her menstrual cycle. Most girls feel embarrassed by their periods and need guidance and support in managing them and in learning to use feminine hygiene products.
Inside His Head: Puberty in Boys
The changes of puberty are often hidden in boys until they begin to grow in height or get erections at inopportune moments. For a boy to be the first of his friends to get taller and stronger gives him status. Boys who develop earlier are often more skilled athletically, another boon in the eyes of their peers. Overall, entering puberty earlier than peers has few downsides for boys.
Late puberty for boys, on the other hand, can be very difficult. Not only have they been watching girls develop for years, they’ve been witnessing the changes in their male peers—changes that seem to bring them social status and increased confidence. Knowing that they are each on their own timeline is often little comfort to these boys, but helping them to find an academic subject, sport, or hobby at which they excel can allow them to build confidence and self-assuredness through another venue.
Be There for Him
Personal hygiene tends to be one of the biggest issues to address when boys hit puberty. Tweens (this goes for girls as well) often don’t realize that they’ve begun to smell, and for parents, it’s important to be straightforward about the necessity of cleanliness from a health perspective. Make face washing and showering a standard part of the daily routine. Get deodorant and talk about how to use it. The goal is to make these things a natural part of life, like teeth brushing. Another major issue is the start of nocturnal emissions (or “wet dreams”). So many boys think they have wet the bed, are humiliated, and try to hide the sheets. What an unnecessary trauma! If you notice that your son’s sheets are stained or missing, address the topic gently to help him understand the normal cycle of development. Many boys feel comfort in setting up a plan for the days on which they wake up with a mess. For example, they strip and change the bed and you agree not to mention it.
When your son’s voice begins to crack, it’s hard to ignore. To put him at ease about it, work with your son’s personality. For some boys, innocent joking can lighten the situation, as long as you’re careful that your child doesn’t feel made fun of. For other boys, addressing the issue once and then ignoring it going forward is the best option.
There are other areas of puberty in which your child will need your guidance as well, as kids feel very awkward and uncomfortable in their own bodies during this stage. Helping your child accept himself as he is is the most important gift you can give him now.
Michelle Anthony, M.A., Ph.D., is co-author of Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades, a certified K-3 teacher, and an expert in developmental psychology. She is mother to three young children and co-founder of Wide-Eyed Learning, a company devoted to facilitating communication and learning between parents and children.