The events that signal the transition from childhood to the tween years might be pleasant, like your daughter being asked to babysit, or your son no longer needing constant supervision and direction with his bedtime routine. But for most of us, there are other, more dubious events that signal tweendom. Think sudden modesty, boys traveling in packs, newfound arguing skills, eyerolls, attitude, and diminished interest in family time.
Welcome to tweenhood, where bodies and brains are under major construction. And while construction zones can be pretty hazardous places, understanding what’s going on in their heads and their bodies can help you (and your child) face it with a little more confidence, a lot less drama, and a focus on safety.
Part I: The Body Morph
For a lot of adults, thoughts of puberty bring back nothing but memories of awkwardness and insecurity. Most of us want our children to have a better experience than we had, and that means our children need two things in particular: a better understanding of what to expect before it happens, and a go-to adult (preferably a parent) that will answer questions honestly and without judgment.
The conversations are made a little easier by understanding that during the late-elementary to early-middle school years, the primary developmental task for your tween is answering the internal question, “Am I normal?” A focus on pre-emptive discussions and simple reassurances can go a long way to ease body anxiety and replace it with acceptance.
To make is easier for you and your tween, here’s a timeline of the pubertal happenings for girl and for boys. Having honest conversations that address their body-questions (both asked and anticipated) in these early years will do wonders for your connection with your child. It will also firmly establish you as their trusted go-to for future confusing, awkward, and private matters.
Puberty usually begins with growth of her feet and hands!
Breast buds (caused by circulating estrogens) are next for 85% of girls. One side will typically bud first and show up as a hard, sometimes tender knot under the areola. The other breast will bud within a few months (although maybe up to 6 months later).
Vaginal discharge (also an estrogen effect) will begin shortly after breasts bud. The discharge has an acid pH that can be irritating to the sensitive skin on the vulva. As hair grows in, it pulls the discharge away from the skin and the irritation resolves. Until then, a mini-pad or a barrier cream containing zinc oxide (diaper rash cream) can be helpful.
Body odor (the result of circulating androgen hormones like testosterone) kicks in around this time. Soap becomes a necessity.
Pubic hair (another androgen related effect) follows for most girls, but may show up before breast buds for 10-15%. It starts as a few straight, darker hairs, then as more hair grows in, it begins to curl. If it grows “out of bounds” and pokes out of bathing suits, she’ll need guidance with hair management or choosing a different bathing suit. Don’t forget to mention that you can help.
Once she’s sprouting pubic hair, she will likely have oily skin, blackheads or acne (androgens, again!). Gentle facial cleansers and over the counter acne treatments, if used consistently, work for most girls.
She’s been growing taller, but suddenly, there’s a very rapid growth spurt, sometimes 2-3 inches in a matter of months.
About 6 months after her fastest growth spurt, she will probably start her period. Most girls have visions of menstruation that are entirely wrong. Make sure you share your first period story with her, and explain what she can expect. She wants to know how much it will be, how long it will last, what color it is, if it hurts, and how to manage it. Again, reassurance goes a long way to reducing anxiety.
Once the period begins, her feet should be finished growing, but she will continue to grow in her trunk, and there may still be some lengthening in her legs. Her growth slows down significantly after her period starts, but most girls will continue to grow at least 1-2 inches over the next few years.
Help her understand and accept that her growth will occur both up and out, and that getting new curves is the norm.
For most girls, breasts are not finished developing (shape more than size) until around age 17 or 18.
Brains are changing too! Through all this time, there are major changes going on in the way her brain functions and grows. Check back in next week for details on the Brain Morph.
Puberty usually begins with growth of his feet and hands as well as an increase in height and weight.
As feet grow, they tend to take on a stronger odor, as does the rest of his body. Soap, deodorant, clean socks, and new shoes are welcome during this phase!
Testicles become larger and the scrotum hangs lower and darkens in color. For most boys, that means nobody knows they’re hitting puberty except them!
Hair growth increases on the legs and begins in the armpits.
The penis grows and then begins to take on a mind of its own with respect to erections. Erections occur more frequently and at unusual times, not just in response to physical stimulation or sexual thoughts. Make sure he knows this is normal.
Pubic hair will darken and become coarse.
Male breast development (gynecomastia) affects about 60% of boys at some point, most commonly between the ages of 12 and 14. It may cause tenderness, but it is rarely a problem and will resolve on its own.
Sperm production results in ejaculation either through wet dreams, masturbation, or other physical stimulation. Again, make sure he knows what to expect, and that it’s normal!
Voice cracks begin as the vocal cords change and the voice deepens.
Facial hair, oily skin and acne may show up around the same time.
A rapid growth spurt is common, but overall, boys also gain height over a longer time than girls, so their ultimate height is taller than most girls.
Muscle mass increases significantly and shoulders broaden
Chest hair may begin, but not all boys get chest hair
Final height is achieved usually in late teens.
Brains are changing too! Through all this time, there are major changes going on in the way his brain functions and grows. Check back in next week for details on the Brain Morph.