Guiding Your Child Through Puberty and Change
Lucille Dust of Munster, Ind., looks back at her children's preteen years with a smile that can only come from experience. As the mother of three grown children – including one particularly rebellious teen – she says she recalls those years well.
"With all my kids, [problems] started at about age 10," she says. "I remember I took my 10-year-old daughter on vacation with me – she hated it. All she talked about was wanting to get back and be with her friends."
Sandra Narron of Largo, Fla., the mother of three teenagers aged 15 to 19, had a different experience. Her kids didn't rebel. But when they each turned 10, she noticed that the phone receiver appeared to be growing out of their ears.
"They were on the phone all the time, making call waiting a necessity," she says. "The line was always tied up all night. I never got to talk to anyone."
Typical preteen behavior? Absolutely, say experts.
"As kids develop, they start to become their own person. Psychologically, they become somewhat independent, beginning to realize that they can live without their parents," says Christine Nicholson, Ph.D., a child psychologist in private practice in Albuquerque, N.M. "This is a healthy thrust, but for the parent, who is no longer in control, it can cause conflict."
When to Expect It
The preteen or pre-adolescent period will, on average, begin in girls between the ages of 8 and 11 and in boys approximately two years later. The first physical changes appear in girls in the form of developing breasts and in boys as voice changes (although other, not-so-apparent-to-you physical changes have probably already occurred in boys, including enlargement of the testes).
As puberty continues, kids will experience growth spurts (approximately 25 percent of adult height is gained in puberty), hormonal changes, the onset of menstruation in girls and hair growth (including the armpits and pubic areas).
"Parents often have concerns about whether their child is starting puberty too early or too late or whether she is progressing normally; but it is all very individual," says Dr. Jennifer Johnson, pediatrician and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' adolescent health section.
On average, girls will start menstruating two years after the first signs of puberty (breast development), with the national average age being 12. However, it is normal for girls to begin their periods anywhere between the ages of 9 and 14. Boys typically won't reach physical maturity until the age of 16 or 17.
What to Expect
In addition to obvious physical changes, your preteen is also changing psychologically. The way he thinks, and ultimately acts, will seem foreign to you as a parent. If your child begins to hide things, for example, what he is really saying is, "I know you won't approve of what I want to do, so I won't tell you."
"The child you have today is not the one you had yesterday and won't be the child you'll have tomorrow," Nicholson says. "Fortunately, adolescence is not another word for 'crazy.' Only a small percentage are really far out."
Dust says that one of her teens became obsessed with a boy, went to jail and almost drove her crazy.
"Thank God we both survived it," she says.
Fortunately, she is in the minority. Only about 15 percent of adolescents rebel.
"Most kids do what they are told for the most part: They go to school, try to achieve and have a life," Nicholson says. "Of course, this doesn't mean that there won't be problems."
Preteens will experience feelings such as insecurity and being out of place. They may be embarrassed to be seen with their parents because they are trying to separate from them and become an individual. Parents, on the other hand, may feel a loss of control as they watch their preteens become more and more involved with their peers and begin to value friends more.
"Their task is to separate from their parents and join society," Nicholson says. "When they are trying to do this task, they have a parent telling them 'Now, brush your teeth,' and they feel like they will never achieve independence, which is scary to them."
Guiding Them Through It
There are ways that parents can guide their children through this difficult time. First, know what to expect. Realize that your preteen may have mood swings, will want to hang out with his friends and may be embarrassed to be with you. If your child wants privacy, respect that wish. This can include a diary and drawers that are off limits.
"If the child expresses a need for modesty, privacy should be allowed," Nicholson says. "However, if there is a proven problem such as drugs, suicidal tendencies or illegal activities, privacy is out the window and anything is fair game."
Above all, communicate with your child, Nicholson says. "Promote acceptance and helpfulness," she says. "Be an advocate and be positive. Say, 'I know that's a really hard thing to go through, but it won't be this way forever.' You will both make mistakes, but remember it's a learning process."
When talking with your child, listen, don't interrupt, and provide adequate time to finish your conversation. If you disagree with your preteen, do so with respect. Also, try getting your child involved in activities he or she enjoys. Find out what interests your child and get him or her involved in it. If they love dance, enroll them in dance classes; if they are interested in sports, encourage them to join a team at school or in the community.
Try not to criticize. "Don't say, 'You're stupid,'" Nicholson says. "Instead, let them know that what they are going through at their age is normal and that one day they'll feel up and the next down. It's helpful to them to know they are normal."
Warning signs that you should seek professional help for your child include being alone excessively, being very angry or defiant, losing weight, too much or too little sleep and a lack of concentration. These are all signs of depression.
Remember that the preteen and teen years are not as difficult as you may think.
"Most parents think, 'God, I'm about to have a teenager,'" Nicholson says. "But I think there's a prejudice against teenagers that accounts for a lot of the anxiety among parents. Teenagers are really great."