For both parents and children, puberty can be… difficult to talk about. Navigating your child’s physical growth and development is tricky, and doing so while being sensitive to their emotional needs is equally challenging. For parents, worry is inevitable, but knowing what to expect and how to communicate these coming changes to your children will help put you – and them – at ease.
No Such Thing as “Normal”
One of the most common concerns expressed by parents is the fear that their child isn’t developing normally. The idea of “normal” causes a great deal of unnecessary anxiety for kids and their families when in actuality, “normal” doesn’t exist. While there are absolutely standard ranges of timely growth that your child’s physician will use as a gauge, puberty is highly subjective. And, naturally, it is important to remember that boys and girls vary greatly in both physical development and age of onset.
When it comes to height, weight and the development of secondary sexual characteristics, every child progresses at their own unique pace. The age at onset of puberty also differs drastically from child to child. Some children may enter this developmental stage as early as 8-10, while others won’t notice any major differences until they’re between the ages of 11 and 13.
Comparison can be a major hinderance to your child’s self-image, and should be avoided whenever possible. Placing the emphasis on overall health and wellness instead of measurements can help to eliminate some unhealthy self-esteem issues. Ultimately, your pediatrician will know best as to whether or not your child is developing at a healthy rate, and will be able to guide you and them through these changes.
Keeping them Healthy
At times, helping your child adopt and maintain healthy habits can feel like a full-time job. During puberty, parents may focus so intently on their child’s physical growth that other key contributors to healthy development are unknowingly shifted to the back burner.
Nutrition & Exercise – Ensuring that your kids are eating properly and staying active will greatly impact their overall wellness during puberty, and well into adulthood too. Encouraging healthy snacking, and engaging your child in at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day are good places to start. This presents an opportunity for some extra quality time as well. Enjoying these activities as a family will increase the chances of your children adopting life-long healthy habits.
Sleep – Children should be waking up naturally, and feeling fully rested once they do. If your child is struggling to get out of bed in the morning, or is sluggish throughout the day, the solution is simple: they need more sleep. While every child’s needs vary somewhat, children between the ages of 6 and 12 should aim for 9-10 hours of uninterrupted sleep in a single cycle. Naps, even long ones, are not a substitute for a good night’s rest. Lack of sleep, or an inconsistent sleep schedule can be extremely harmful to healthy physical growth, and can cause a variety of attention, memory and emotional problems as well.
Screen Time – The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 18 have no more than 2 hours of screen time per day. While avoiding screen time can be a challenge, especially with the increasing presence of screens in the classroom, extensive exposure to screens can weaken eyesight and hinder interpersonal development. Too much screen time before bed can also disrupt healthy sleeping patterns. It can be tough, but limiting screen time in order mitigate these risks will be worth your efforts.
When to Have the Talk(s)
Most schools integrate health into their curriculum around 4th or 5th grade, but at home, conversations about mental health, body changes, bullying and even the dangers of improper substance use should take place between you and your child as early as possible. This is especially helpful for children with older siblings, who may already be witnessing these behaviors and changes without a proper understanding of them. Normalizing these conversations early on will reduce the “taboo” nature of the subjects, creating an open dialogue between you and your child for years to come. This also decreases the chance of them seeking the information from less trustworthy sources.
Some children are simply more forthcoming than others. If your child isn’t completely comfortable talking to you about the complex and confusing things they’re going through, try not to take it personally. There are other options out there. First, your child’s primary physician is an invaluable resource who will keep these conversations confidential. It may be easier to confide in a healthcare professional, and you will always know that the information your child receives is trustworthy. Additionally, there are educational reading materials available for children and teens that may help facilitate these conversations more naturally.
Helpful Resources for Parents
Consulting your family’s pediatrician or primary care physician should always be your first step when it comes to your child’s routine health needs. However, should a more serious medical concern arise, South Shore Medical Center has an extensive network of specialists at Children’s Hospital that patients can be referred to for help with dermatology, orthopedic surgery, endocrinology, gynecology and more.
While we all hope the day will never come, South Shore’s one-of-a-kind pediatric emergency services, and hundreds of health professionals, including board-certified pediatric specialists from Boston Children’s Hospital, are available 24/7 to help you and your child even when the unexpected happens. Learn more about these services, and the pediatric network in your own neighborhood with South Shore Health’s online Community Resource Directory.