From approximately 11-14 your child experiences many difficult developmental changes that include rapid physical, intellectual and emotional growth. For girls, publerty can begin at ages 10 or 11 and end around age 16. For boys, puberty begins later, often around age 12 and lasts til around ages 16 or 17.
Girls need to learn from their mothers what is typical to expect told briefly but candidly, so they know they are “normal” which is a major concern. They can be advised that although they may want to be slim, it’s natural for body fat to increase and breasts to enlarge.
They’ll be fully aware that pubic hair grows and that their height and weight increase. But the rapidity that this occurs for some girls or the delay for others is what generally worries them. They need to be reassured that they fit in the norm and in time, all the girls, their friends, will go through it, too.
The early and late bloomers generally have the toughest time accepting this and maybe moody and lose some self-confidence in the process.
Menstruation usually begins around the same age as the mother, but sometimes before. Because it’s not that predictable, they need to be given appropriate pads and maybe tampons, so they’re available when needed. It’s the emotional, not physical preparation that is most difficult. While some girls take menstruation easily and even as a point of pride, others dread it and worry about its occurrence.
Reassurance without teasing or judgment is the key. Male members of the family should stay away from the topic which can lead to humiliation and embarrassment for the self-conscious teen.
When hips widen, some girls perceive this gradual change as getting fat and become preoccupied spending a lot of time looking in the mirror. If facial pimples also occur, the girl may leap to feeling she’s become ugly. When mothers look at young women in the mall, they can point out that even the prettiest have hips and that this gives their figure grace and charm.
Each mother-daughter duo has to find their own way of talking about these things gently and lovingly for the girl to be reassured.
Boys tease each other a lot and often want to see how other boys look in locker rooms, especially on travel sports teams when they share rooms in hotels. They notice how their scrotum becomes darker, testicles grow larger, and their penis grows longer and fuller.
Competition about size and potency begins and boys become rivalrous and sometimes the teasing gets out of hand, especially for the more vulnerable, self-conscious boy. While fathers may kid around with their sons, they need to do so gently and be reassuring that all these changes are natural and normal.
Most 11-14 year olds are concrete thinkers, meaning they often perceive things as good or bad which makes their physical changes markers to them of whether they are good or bad, ugly or good-looking, liked or disliked. While this is normal, it’s easy to get irritable and angry when their perceptions are negative because they are usually quite exaggerated.
They also are keen on wondering what others are thinking about them, often projecting their worst self-views onto others who may think quite well of them.
Preteens and teens tend to think bad things won’t happen to them simply because of their young ages and limited experiences. Thus risky behaviors may rise only to be tempered by loving discussions about reasonable rules of behavior. These discussions should be collaborative, not dictated, so the child doesn’t want to push back. If a child knows your limits come from love and protection, they are much more able to accept and actually be relieved by them.
While all the above are touchy subjects because they are about our vulnerabilities relating to bodily changes, suggestions about hygiene can become particularly sensitive. Leave out the deodorant without making a big deal of it. Simply state a shower a day is what grown-ups do and they are growing up now. Avoid battles over clothes, hair styles, and messy rooms as the teens need to experiment and define who they are.
Share ideas, don’t dictate and your suggestions will be accepted much more easily.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst with an upcoming book, Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, to be released Oct. 13, 2015. There are many chapters about working out problems sensitively with adolescents.