Not Your Mother's Puberty (or Yours!): Q&A with Cara Natterson, M.D. & Vanessa Kroll Bennett

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It doesn’t matter who you are: everybody has an awkward or embarrassing puberty story. Like puberty itself, the awkwardness is a given, sort of a rite of passage. And if you’re the parent of a tween or teen, you know that we get to revisit that awkwardness — at least in some capacity — as our kids go through it. These days, though, we’re on the other side of it, trying to help our kids navigate the confusing journey through adolescence as smoothly as possible. We try to embrace teachable moments and grit our teeth through mood swings and growth spurts, but a lot of things have changed since we were in the thick of puberty ourselves — both with us, since we’re the parents now, and with the world in general.

For a modern approach to all things puberty-related, we turned to puberty experts, co-hosts of The Puberty Podcast, and authors of the upcoming book This is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained, Dr. Cara Natterson and Vanessa Kroll Bennett, for a Q&A session that will help us and our kids get through these trying times.


Q: Puberty is starting earlier than ever … how does that affect the way parents need to talk about it with their kids (and when should they start the discussions)?

A: Here’s the most important principle when it comes to talking to kids about puberty (or any other topic for that matter): leave all shame and judgment out. Puberty happens to everyone, so it’s a conversation that can actually be pretty matter-of-fact. There’s room for humor, too. Just don’t dump the whole kitchen sink onto a kid in one huge lecture. Talking about puberty requires many, many small conversations with just a little bit of information dosed out each time. Leave them wanting more, right?

It’s never too early to start talking about puberty, especially when it comes to correct anatomical terminology and consent. Anatomy lessons can begin when they are babies on the changing table or toddlers in the bath. Consent talk should start in preschool and kindergarten, when kids have their hands all over everything and everyone. Notice that these conversations have nothing to do with sex — but they have everything to do with communicating clearly and respecting personal boundaries. Ideally, by the age of eight or nine (the average age when puberty starts in girls), adults should be having substantive, age-appropriate conversations with all kids about the basics of growing and changing bodies.

While we love starting these conversations early, it’s never too late. So if you have a middle- or a high schooler and you’ve never talked to them about their bodies or consent or the emotional highs and lows wrought by puberty, this is the time to start!

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Q: What’s your best advice to help parents get over whatever squeamishness/discomfort they may have about discussing puberty?

A: We like to say that adults need to leave their own adolescent baggage at the door. We all come into conversations around puberty and adolescence with our own histories, memories, and experiences. And while those feel very central to our puberty narratives — literally they’re burned into our brains in a way that almost no other memories are — they’re often not helpful to kids. Our baggage adds a burden when they have so much to carry already.

If you find yourself struggling to leave your own memories out of conversations with kids in your care, that probably means you have to get those stories out! We recommend reaching out to a trusted friend, partner, mental health provider (or all of the above) and telling them: I’m noticing a lot of my own past is coming up when I’m trying to support my kid. Do you mind if I dump some of that stuff on you so I don’t share too much with them?

Q: How do you bring up the topic in general, in the most non-cringeworthy way?

A: One of the most common questions we get, maybe the most common, is about starting this dialogue. Adults are (rightfully) certain that their kids will not be the least bit excited. Here’s the most important advice: it’s not one conversation, but tons of tiny ones about puberty and growing up, so you have lots of tries to get this right. A generation ago, “The Talk” was how most adults handled puberty — but knowing that lots of little talks is the way to go now will hopefully relieve some pressure to do it perfectly.

That said, three tips:

  1. Avoid eye contact. Find an opportunity to talk to your kid where you’re not staring them directly in the face — this could be in the car or on a walk with the dog or while prepping dinner together — because avoiding eye contact takes some of the pressure off for both of you.
  2. Admit your nervousness. Kids love it when we admit to being nervous or uncomfortable. So name it! I want to talk about [fill in the blank] but I’m feeling a little nervous so it may not come out exactly as I want it to. It’s OK to laugh and make jokes as well. Talking about puberty doesn’t need to be super-serious business.
  3. Take a do-over. When, not if, you mess up a conversation, just take a do-over. None of us will navigate this tricky terrain perfectly, but our kids’ still deserve accurate information, so circle back and say: You know when I told you [insert inaccurate information], I actually did a little research and it turns out that [insert accurate information.]

Q: Is there a topic that parents don’t bring up enough?

A: The most common miss is skipping puberty conversations about other genders. It’s important for a person to learn what is shifting and changing inside their body, but it’s just as important for them to learn about body parts they don’t have. There’s a massive amount of overlap regardless of gender, the shared experiences of growing and changing that generate confusion, unpredictability, and stress. Mood swings aren’t gendered; neither are acne breakouts, or the challenges of changing friendships or the question of how to handle new hair growth. Framing puberty this way helps kids realize they are all in the same boat.

Q: What if you’ve got a “late bloomer”?

A: Being a late bloomer — someone who starts puberty later than most of their friends — can be really difficult for a kid (and their caregivers) because it can have downstream impacts on all sorts of social and emotional experiences: athletics, friendships, romantic relationships, and overall self-esteem. Layered on top is the fact that adults often treat kids the way they look, not their actual age. So a 15 year old who looks 12 might be talked down to in a way that feels infantilizing and downright demeaning. (And by the way, there’s an inverse problem of adults treating early bloomers older than they are, creating a host of other issues.)

If you have a late bloomer, the first thing you can do is acknowledge it — not talking about something doesn’t change how a kid feels about their current situation. In fact, not talking can signal that you don’t want to talk about tricky topics, which can silence a bigger range of conversations. Keep it simple: I’ve noticed that other people are at a different stage of development than you are. Is that something you’ve given much thought to? Another tact might be: A lot of people in our family were late bloomers. It doesn’t make it any easier, but I just wanted you to know you’re not the only one.

Don’t shy away from getting advice from a healthcare professional if you have questions about your kid’s pubertal development. A physical exam and some lab tests can provide reassuring answers to questions or point you to see a specialist. Either way, your kid will feel seen and validated that what they’re going through is important.

Q: How do you get your kids to actually feel comfortable asking you questions and relying on your information rather than stuff they hear from their friends?

A: Helping kids learn to parse fact from fiction or reliable vs. unreliable information is a lifelong skill. When they’re little, they come home with all sorts of hilarious “truths” from friends, and things only get more complicated when they gain access to the internet and social media. It’s our job to counterbalance those sources. Big aside here: avoid demonizing ALL social media as evil and wrong because there are some awesome resources to be found there as well (our TikTok channel @spillingthepubertea is a perfect example!)

Kids need to be shown over and over that the adults in their lives are great resources for questions. Telling a kid once in 5th grade doesn’t get the message across but letting them know repeatedly in different ways is great: I just read an article about teen brains and learned so much. Did you know that… or pausing the TV when you’re watching a show together that brings up stuff about relationships or consent or love and asking them to react are subtle ways to be in conversation. And sometimes, kids are most likely to ask us questions in the quiet moments when adults are not saying much of anything. Sounds counterintuitive but it’s true!

Q: Tips on navigating through those awful tween and teen mood swings?

A: The most important thing to remember is that they hate their mood swings as much as you do! Much of the time, kids can’t help their mood swings. There are essentially two reasons for this: first, their brains are under construction; and second, their brains are bathed in a hormone stew filled with unpredictable waves of rising and falling sex hormones. Both of these affect how their brains fire and therefore how they behave and react.

It’s so much easier to be supportive when you remember that they can’t really help the mood swings and they’re not being jerks on purpose (even if it seems like they are). When in doubt, don’t take it personally. But also, don’t tell them to calm down! It literally has the opposite effect. And finally, try not to solve or fix whatever the crisis of the moment is – sometimes it is best just to be an empathic listener rather than the problem solver. In most cases, just as the mood blew in without notice, it will likely blow out just as quickly.

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