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Understanding Puberty in Teens and Tweens

Puberty - the final frontier.
These are the voyages of our tweens and teens*.
Their 5-ish year mission: to become independent while their body is changing inside and out,
to boldly go where every tween and teen in history has gone before!


Just like Captains Picard and Kirk on Star Trek, we encounter aliens daily as our kids evolve through puberty. Those aliens are none other than our teens and tweens, or Ts for short. I have to admit I was a nonbeliever that the alien force could start so young until my girls both entered the terrible Ts at the early age of 9. But, that is when it begins – tweendom and puberty.

When parenting Ts, we’d be wise to follow Star Fleet Academy’s Prime Directive. The Prime Directive allows for healthy interaction without interference in a way that would alter the natural history of that alien culture, and prohibits introducing technology and information they have not advanced to. Sounds like parenting maturing children to me. But, unlike in Star Trek, the lines of where to not intervene are not so clear cut. Our kids are still kids even as they enter and evolve through puberty.

Puberty, the process, changes everything about our Ts inside and out, similar to a purge and rebuild of a computer hard drive. Sometimes the transition is smooth and other times bumpy but in the end all systems return to normal. Puberty occurs over 5-7 years in 5 stages starting with our prepubertal child in stage 1 and ending with an adult-like older teen in stage 5. All Ts go through the same 5 stages but the timing can be very different from T to T. Inside and out, the focal point of puberty is a maturing reproductive system and ability to reproduce. So, needless to say, our Ts sexual lives start to develop during this process. Whether they act on those feelings or not, the feelings are their and can be confusing.

Boys and girls experience puberty very differently. Maria Olio, a mom of three teen boys and one tween girl and local columnist, found that all her Ts were similarly moody but her boys seemed to have an easier time accepting the physical changes. This makes sense since girls’ physical changes are quite obvious whereas a boys’ are more subtle.

What can we do as parents during this chaotic time? Simple. Follow the Prime Directive of Parenting Ts:

1. Develop a good poker face. There will be some Tums moments, but the less you react, the quicker the emotional chaos will subside.
2. Expect RHMs for all kids, boys and girls: Random Hormonal Moments. There will be times your child appears possessed. To handle a RHM, listen – breathe – listen…exhale…then talk. When in doubt, say nothing. Once the RHM subsides, it will be easier to figure out if any real issue is at play.
3. Space is your friend. Ts need some alone time but they also very much struggle to stay connected to their family. True give and take work better then edicts.
4. Be open for conversation and accepting if they have emotional or sexual views different from your own. Work in tidbits and find teachable moments from the news or town and school events. Kids this age do better if the information isn’t too personal at first. “Don’t wait for them to ask you”, notes Maria. “You ask them”.

As our Ts go through puberty and become young adults, we have to change our parenting styles. We have to become less hands-on and more observers while keeping a foot in the door to intervene and advise when needed. We have to help them find boundaries, learn from their mistakes and discover who they are as individuals. And, we have to be accepting if they develop different views from our own.

The key to success is being mindful of the stage they are at and not reading too much into everything. I was reminded of that recently with my own 9 year old daughter in this conversation:

Tween: “Mom, did I tell you that Loralei and Christopher are back together on the Gilmore girls. They’re sleeping together, too”

Mom: “Oh? What exactly is ‘sleeping together’?” (very calm, I might add – practiced points 1 and 2 above!)

Tween: “You know, dating…and sleeping in the same bed. I don’t think they’ve had sex yet.”

Mom: “Sex?”

Tween: “Yea, You know, when you get naked and kiss a lot.”

She’s only 9 so I would not expect more detail, but it is coming and before I’ll be ready, or 5th grade, which ever comes first! But, the clock is ticking! I just hope I remember to follow the Prime Directive when the conversations get more in tense.

[*Teen: a child in the later stages of puberty, 13-18

Tween: a kid no longer a child but not yet a teen, early to mid puberty, ages 9-12]

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Content copyright © 2013 by Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, M.D, F.A.A.P. All rights reserved.
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