Preteens the Middle Years : She is Starting Puberty! Changing bodies, first dates (part 1)

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Q: Is it too early for my son to be dating?
A: Your son’s first date probably won’t seem like one to you. At this age, dating often means just being around each other, usually with other friends in a group. This works well as a means for your child to enter the world of dating without all the pressure to be alone, maintain a conversation, and spend too much hard-earned pocket money on going out.

This is a new venture for your son so your support is essential. Do take it seriously: Encourage him to bring his friend home and accept his choice even if you’re not convinced this is the right person for him. Show an interest by asking about his friend, but try to avoid too much interrogation, or he may feel pressured and stop offering you information. You will need to decide how much privacy you give him. If he and his friend want to spend time in his room, you may feel more comfortable if the door is open and there is agreement that you’ll be nearby. This may be a good time to have a private chat about what you expect of him in terms of sexual behavior. While this could be an embarrassing conversation, it is worth having to make sure he’s aware of your values and standards.

As he starts to date, be ready to act as a comforter when he breaks up. Take his heartache seriously: These early experiences can be very painful. It may be hard on you too, seeing him distressed.

Q: My son has his first crush. He won’t tell me who it is. How seriously should I take it?
A: Your child’s first crush can be both intense and painful to you watching from the outside and may take up plenty of his time. One study has found that high school students spend five to eight hours per week thinking about possible romantic partners. Whatever the emotional fallout, crushes are common because they act as practice sessions when it comes to love. Your child’s love interest is probably unattainable, such as a movie star, musician, favorite teacher, or older teenager, so he can indulge in strong emotions without getting up close and personal. It is also normal for many teenagers to have crushes on people of the same sex, as they explore that side of their own sexuality from a distance, too.

These intense relationships give your child a chance to bring up the subject of romance with his friends. When he discusses what a relationship might be like, how he would act, and levels of intimacy he’s comfortable with, he is developing his personal values and acceptable behaviors. This preoccupation may seem trivial at times. However, if you think back to the highs and lows of your own adolescent romances, you might find this angst more understandable. When his crush ends, your child will appreciate some time to talk as well as space to be alone and melancholy if he wishes. His feelings will pass, and another person will become his focus, but this may seem impossible to him right now.

Having a crush may mean your son loses some interest in studies and socializing. If this persists to the point of affecting his grades or emotional well-being, or if his need to be near his crush invades their personal space and private life, for example through following them or over-the-top gifts, he’s reached a worrying level of intensity. If you are concerned about the power of your child’s emotions, talk with your doctor, school nurse, or school counselor for additional help. Youth hotlines can also offer advice and support to you and your child.

Q: My daughter developed early, but she shows off her new body. Should I make her cover up?
A: Your daughter’s newly developed body can signal a change in status in her peer group. If her friends value her as a source of knowledge about puberty, she may gain importance with them. This can help her to be proud of her body rather than shy. She may also attract the “wrong” kind of attention from boys or young men, which may be a powerful motivator to show off. It is known that girls who mature early are more likely to mix with an older group of friends and get involved with them in riskier behavior, such as drinking and sexual activity, than girls reaching puberty later. Simply because she is physically mature won’t mean she’s automatically able to handle the relationships and peer pressure issues of her older friends. Be open with her about your worries and work on building trust as well as negotiating limits. Monitor her friendships more closely than you would otherwise, encourage her to meet with friends in your home so that you can get to know them, and ensure she has a curfew and freedoms appropriate to her own emotional maturity rather than those of the older group.
Q: My daughter is hiding stained clothes and sanitary pads. Is she just unhygienic?
A: The start of her periods can be a confusing time for your daughter as she adjusts to crossing a physical and psychological threshold toward maturity. She must also get a handle on the practical aspects of menstruating. It is not unusual for pads and soiled underwear to be stuffed at the back of drawers or hidden under the bed. Perhaps your child feels embarrassed about carrying them out into the public areas of the house or putting them in with the household trash. She may be anxious to avoid the whole family knowing or commenting on the fact that she’s menstruating. Address this as a problem to be solved, and your daughter will be reassured that you understand her situation. Do set up some practical ways for her to manage pads and underwear. You may decide to put small bags and a lined bin next to the toilet so that she can dispose of her sanitary pads right away without bringing them out of the bathroom. Reassure her that it’s normal for underwear to become stained sometimes.

Perhaps having her own personal laundry basket in her room will enable her to separate soiled clothes, then you can launder these discreetly without the whole family knowing the details.

Q: When do I talk about contraception?
A: The sooner you talk about contraception, the better. This does not mean your child will immediately go out and experiment with sex: Being well informed has not been found to increase young people’s sexual activity. Do refresh your own understanding of contraception before you speak with your child. As well as giving information about contraception, bust some myths about how pregnancy happens. For example, many children believe that a girl can’t become pregnant if sexual intercourse happens standing up, during menstruation, or if she jumps or moves around right after intercourse.

This is also an ideal opportunity to talk about pressure to kiss, touch, or have sex. Your child may believe “everyone is doing it” and feel he must keep up with his peers. Ease this burden by explaining that the majority of children of his age haven’t done the things they claim and are as anxious about intimate contact as he is. Open up a discussion about what physical intimacy means in a relationship and that it is most enjoyable when there is love and only if both people want to take part. There is little joy if things happen only to prove something to others. Do encourage him to come to you if he’s feeling pressured to do something he’s not yet ready for.

Q: Why is my child’s behavior so unpredictable?
A: Like anyone under pressure and coping with a lot of change, your child might find her moods vary from hour to hour and from day to day. At times, the changes in her life may seem wonderful and full of opportunity while, at others, an increasing sense of responsibility can be overwhelming. It is unsettling for her to feel out of control of her moods, and almost as confusing for you, since you may not know what to expect or how to react.

Seemingly trivial disappointments may feel like major incidents to your child as she negotiates increasingly complex social relationships. For example, a friend not sitting next to her on the bus or not calling when expected can be interpreted as a major rejection. Similarly, she may feel unrealistically optimistic if something has gone her way, perhaps being asked on a date or complimented on her schoolwork gives her a moment of pure joy that all is well with the world. All-or-nothing statements are common, such as, “Everyone is staring at me since I got these braces. They all think I’m a freak.” Or “Nobody likes me, they’re all laughing because I got in trouble in class.” You may be tempted to argue against these interpretations, but doing so can prompt your child to defend her opinion. Often just listening, sympathizing, and making an offer to help are enough to put them in perspective.

Q: What other emotional issues am I likely to encounter as my child becomes a teenager?
A: Your child has a lot of adjusting to do in the coming years: Striving toward independence, developing intimate relationships, and working out her own values and aspirations. It’s no wonder, with all this going on, that her emotions and behavior may be erratic and unpredictable to you. Her developing body can have an impact on her confidence. She may feel out of proportion and embarrassed about her growth.

Other common worries for girls are about how to manage menstruation, weight, and shape. Boys can become concerned over height and penis size, and, as they mature, about erections being noticeable during physical education or in class.

One of the key tasks of the preteen and teen years is for your child to develop opinions and values separate from your own. To do this, she may actively challenge and reject your standards and attitudes, even taking on the extreme opposite views from your own in order to test them out and get your reaction. This is a helpful process for her, even though at times it may seem hurtful and worrying to you. More than ever, she wants you to trust her, to believe that she can make good decisions, keep herself safe, and live up to her own standards.

This drive toward independence can sit uneasily with your desire to protect her and to be cautious about giving too much freedom too soon. As a result, frequent small conflicts are common. Trust can only be built, however, if you permit her to test her independence through gradual increases in responsibility for herself.

Embarrassment Struggling to be grown-up

Right now you might be the most embarrassing thing in your child’s life. Whether you’re trying to kiss her good-bye in public or remind her to dress warm, you’re likely to get a look of disdain as she ducks away to avoid being seen with you.

This is all about her struggle to appear more grown-up. Signs of her dependency on you, such as being dropped off at the school gate, undermine the self-reliant image she’s trying to portray. The answer isn’t to stop helping, but to respect her embarrassment by going along with her. For example, drop her off around the corner from school and keep your kisses and concern for the privacy of home. She doesn’t love you any less, but she will appreciate your discretion.


Be your child’s guide as she adjusts to puberty’s many physical and emotional changes

Myths and misconceptions Is it true that…

Q: All preteens and teenagers are at a crisis point, and major conflict with parents is the norm?
A: This is not true. Minor conflict and disapproval is common between parents and children at this stage of development. However, more than half of teens and preteens report few or no intense disputes. The family unit remains a strong source of support and values for the majority of children throughout childhood and adolescence.
Q: Friends become more important than family as children reach adolescence?
A: This is not entirely true: Both you and your child’s peers exert a strong influence upon her. The quality of your relationship with your child affects how much attention she pays to your point of view. A positive connection between you means greater influence on her choices and actions. Reassuringly, children do wish parents would speak with them more frequently, and 75 percent would like to be able to discuss sex and contraception with parents.
Q: Children’s physical development is getting ahead of their emotional development?
A: This is correct. Statistics show the age of puberty has fallen over the course of the last century, but children’s social and emotional maturity has seemingly not kept pace with their physical development. This means children appear more physically mature but are not necessarily able to manage the complex emotional and relationship demands that go along with this.
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