The Awkward Stage: Puberty

“Cherylanne is fourteen and she is pretty.  I am twelve and I am not, although Cherylanne said this is the awkward stage and I could just as likely get better.  We watch.”                                         Elizabeth Berg, Durable Goods

The awkward stage…awkward for the boys and girls going through puberty and sometimes just as awkward for the parents. 

“When do I talk to them about sex?”

“What do I say?”

“What do I do if they don’t want to talk about it?”

We hear these questions and more from parents on a regular basis in counseling office.  As a parent, you know that the changes that are happening to your son or daughter are often as overwhelming to you as they are to them.

Your daughter’s anger outbursts are keeping your entire family on tiptoes.

Your son has just had his first erection.

What is normal?  What can you expect?  And how can you help prepare them not only for these changes, but for the hormonal and even sexual pressures to come?

What to Expect

            The first and probably most important thing you can expect is change.  Expect that your son or daughter will look different—taller, rounder, even fuzzier.  Expect a different set of emotions, too, that will often dominate your household.  Anger, tears, frustration, overwhelmed-ness.  These all will happen and happen often to both boys and girls.  But there are specifics that take place, too, that make this time particularly awkward for your sons and for your daughters.

Where the Boys Are

            Physical changes abound for the boys in these years of puberty.  Boys can begin puberty as early as 10 and as late as 16, so it’s helpful to let your son know that everyone matures at a different pace.  During this time, however, all boys go through some similar changes.  They will all experience a growth spurt.  Their shoulders will broaden, their muscles will develop, and they will gain weight.  They will have erections and wet dreams as boys in this age bracket have five to seven surges of testosterone per day.  Their voices change, as well, progressively and falteringly growing deeper.  Hair crops up under their arms, around their genitals, on their faces.  They develop oily skin and pimples, and sweat more.

            Emotionally, boys will experience a variety of feelings, and often all in the same day.  Your son will become more fatigued than usual.  He will become sad, maybe even appeared depressed.  He will show more anxiety than usual, and be prone to more irritability than usual.  He will also have anger outbursts at any given moment.  These emotions are not only stronger than before, but they are likely to come at the most unlikely of moments.  The smallest thing will trigger a very large emotional response for him…or for her.

Where the Girls Are

            Most girls begin puberty 1-2 years earlier than boys and finish puberty more quickly.  However, girls today are reported to begin puberty as early as 8 years-old, although the norm is between the ages of 9 and 13.  Most girls fall along the same timeline as the women in their family before them.  Physically, girls also begin puberty with a growth spurt.  They also develop pubic hair and develop breast buds.  Usually, girls start menstruation approximately six months after their breasts begin to form.  Their hair will also become darker under their arms and on their legs.  And, like boys, they tend to perspire (a lady never sweats, according to Sissy’s grandmother) and develop oily skin and pimples.  The most significant physical change for her, and possibly for you, will be the onset of her period.

            In our book, Mirrors and Maps (for 11-14 year-old girls), we compare the hormonal influence in girls’ brains at this time to the Tasmanian Devil.  You may remember him from the Looney Tunes cartoons.  He came on the scene with a vengeance—grunting and turning everything around him on its head.  Her world will feel much like one the Tasmanian Devil has just entered.  It will be chaotic, emotional, and topsy-turvy.  And, from your perspective, she may resemble Taz himself.  Add to the mix that your daughters’ brain growth surges during this stage causing drops in her memory functioning and self-confidence, and you have one emotional, often insecure daughter.  Her moods will include bouts of listlessness, sadness, lethargy, anger, irritability, impatience, anxiety, and even fear.  And, much like her male counterparts, she will turn on a dime.

What You Can Do

            The single most important thing you can do for your sons and daughters during and before this stage of their development is to talk to them.  We see a tragic number of kids in counseling who have never talked to their parents about puberty, let alone about sex.  And the onset of one typically follows with intrigue concerning the other.

            In regard to puberty, tell her or him what is going to happen either before or at the onset of puberty.  Most kids believe that they are the only ones going through whatever is happening to them.  Let them know that every child goes through the same changes.  Help them understand that their bodies will develop at different speeds, which is an important part of how God made them.  Talk to them about the changes that will occur emotionally, as well.  It can profoundly help to know that the bouts of anger and sadness, as well as the dips in confidence are all a part of God growing them into men and women.  It can also take away the prevalent fear of pre-teens that “something is wrong with me.”  

            A study at the University of Minnesota found that teenagers are less likely to have sex when their mothers not only communicate about sex with their children, but are also significantly involved in their lives.  A conversation about sex will fairly quickly lead to a conversation about sex.  Thankfully, many schools and churches are addressing puberty with kids today.  But, as a parent, you want your voice to be the first they hear on these topics.  Talk to your children.  Tell them how God designed sex and what a miraculous gift it is for a husband and wife.  Share with them your values, whether you are their mother or father.  We would say both parents can have a profound influence on a boy or girl, no matter how much they pretend they aren’t listening.  As a matter of fact, we have many parents take their kids away for the weekend on a special getaway to have these conversations.  Make it a celebration—a rite of passage.  It is also important to make sure that your child is connected to a group of kids who are committed to the same principles you want your child.  As they move into adolescence, other kids’ voices will take on a great deal of power in the life of your child.  You want these voices to be offering truth to your child.

            The same Minnesota study determined that it was more important for the parent to be connected to the child than what specifically the parent said.  Don’t worry about the “right” thing to say.  God will use your presence, your relationship, and your heart for your child to communicate more than you could ever imagine.  All you have to do is open up the conversation.  He will transform something awkward into something beautiful—as only God can do.



For Parents:

Raising Girls, by Melissa Trevathan and Sissy Goff

Wild Things, the Art of Nurturing Boys by Stephen James and David Thomas

What I Wish You Knew by American Girl

Preparing Your Daughter for Every Woman’s Battle by Shannon Ethridge and Stephen Artenburn

Preparing Your Son for Every Man’s Battle by Shannon Ethridge and Stephen Artenburn

The Wonder of Girls by Michael Gurian

The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian

For Girls:

Mirrors and Maps by Melissa Trevathan and Sissy Goff

A Smart Girls Guide to Boys by American Girl author Nancy Holyoke

Every Young Woman’s Battle by Shannon Ethridge and Stephan Artenburn

The Care & Keeping of You by the American Girl Library

For Boys:

Flight Plan by Braxton Brady and Lee Burns

Every Young Man’s Battle by Stephen Artenburn, Fred Stoeker, Stereo Motion, and and Mike Yorkey

American Medical Association’s Boys Guide to Becoming a Teen