How to help your child navigate puberty (without the myths and misconceptions)
- The start of puberty varies from person to person, but on average it begins around ages 10 to 11 for females and from age 11 for males.
- Dr Jill advises to start educating your children about puberty before it begins.
- Providing reassurance and normalising puberty is vital.
- Be prepared to bust any common myths and misconceptions about puberty.
Many parents are taken by surprise when their child starts puberty. We all know it’s going to happen, but it feels like a far-off event in the distant future. But, before you know it, they’re about to start their first day of school – high school that is.
We asked Dr Jill Gamberg, GP for some advice on how to help your child prepare for and get through all the physical and emotional changes of puberty.
Part of being prepared is having realistic expectations. That’s why we also asked Dr Jill to clear up some of the common myths and misconceptions about puberty.
The first signs of puberty
Although your child’s hormones may start to change in mid-primary school, puberty begins on average around ages 10 to 11.
Dr Jill says that exactly when puberty starts varies from person to person. “Budding breasts, growing hair, enlarging genitals, growing taller and getting periods is going to be at a different age and different rate for everybody,” she explains.
However, some children may experience early onset puberty, which is considered to be before the age of eight for girls and before the age of nine for boys.
According to Dr Jill, we should start educating children about puberty before it happens.
“The last thing you'd want as a child is for something to start happening to your body and nobody's explained it to you,” she advises. She also recommends speaking to your GP if you notice your child might be starting puberty early.
In terms of the signs your child is about to start their first period, what typically happens first is pubic and underarm hair growth. Then, about two years since they first started developing breasts, it’s likely that your child will begin menstruating.
In a recent review of the scientific literature, researchers have found that the age of thelarche (breast tissue development) “has decreased by almost 3 months per decade from 1977 to 2013.”
These findings suggest that puberty for girls may be happening earlier than it has in the past.
Ways to support your kids through puberty
To help your kids adjust to the profound changes and experiences of puberty, Dr Jill recommends you:
Going through puberty can be a confusing and awkward experience. Tweens and teens may feel self-conscious about who they are and what they look like. That’s why Dr Jill says that providing reassurance is vital.
“Children really need reassurance, especially when they’re feeling unsure. For example, if kids stain their sheets with period blood or semen from wet dreams, just normalise it and say, ‘Hey, don't worry about it. Just take your bedsheets and pop them in the washing machine’,” she says.
Dr Jill says that normalising the changes that happen to our bodies during puberty may help our kids be better prepared for it.
“Communication is key. Start the conversation early and reassure your child that puberty is a normal part of life,” she says.
Dr Jill suggests asking your kids what they know about puberty and what the kids talk about at school to start the conversation.
Some parents may feel daunted talking to their kids about some physical changes that they didn’t experience themselves. For example, a mum might feel a bit awkward talking to her son about puberty.
Dr Jill’s advice is, “Explain that we all go through changes during puberty. Talk about the facts and clear up any myths.”
Bust common puberty myths
For parents of children about to start their periods, a common myth that you could help bust is that people can’t have a bath or go swimming while menstruating.
“This is obviously not true,” says Dr Jill, “Tween don’t have to swim if they don't want to, but you can teach them how to feel comfortable doing it while they have their period. For example, they could learn how to use tampons, menstrual cups or try period bathing suits and underwear.”
Other common puberty myths are that period blood is “dirty” or “unclean”.
“There's nothing wrong with period blood. It's normal, natural and perfectly clean,” says Dr Jill.
Some people also mistakenly believe that pimples are a result of being dirty. “While general hygiene is important, acne or pimples are not caused by being a “dirty” person,” explains Dr Jill.
They grow up so fast
As a parent, no one prepares you for that moment when you suddenly realise your kids are on the cusp of becoming adults. Help them navigate this intense period of change by reassuring them that what happens to our bodies during puberty is just a normal part of life.
And, if you have any questions or concerns about your child and puberty, be sure to speak to your medical practitioner.
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Dr Jill Gamberg is a General Practitioner and one of the first Australian Lifestyle Medicine Physicians whose goal is to help prevent disease and maintain wellness with evidence-based practice, and to passionately improve health literacy.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board October 2021.