From Funky Smells to Awkward Conversations: A Caregiver’s Guide to Puberty

Published: Thursday, April 18, 2024
Family Medicine

Take a second to think about your own puberty journey. Remember how your body changed physically and how you started to develop emotionally as an individual. Like myself, you may reminisce about how you were initially oblivious to body odor, then anxious about your body changing, and how you knew your caregiver could not understand what was happening. Now you’re probably thinking, “I have been through what my child is now going through; how do I make it less awkward for them?” From the prepubescent stages through the “joyful” years of puberty, each stage requires flexibility, understanding and, most of all, patience from you as a caregiver.

General Information and Puberty Timelines

First, let’s delve into the physical changes that mark this transformative phase. Puberty is the stage of life that includes rapid growth, sexual development and psychosocial maturation. To effectively develop, your child will require a surplus of calories and nutrients. It is normal for prepubescents to gain 30 – 40 pounds in preparation. We typically expect girls to start puberty between 8 – 13 years of age and boys between 9 – 14 years of age. Girls develop breast buds whereas boys have an increase in testicular size. After these first signs, they will develop pubic hair, armpit hair and periodic growth spurts. The entire process typically lasts two to five years.

The Ups and Downs of Emotions and Hormones

Puberty is also the time when teens develop self-image and learn how to process feelings. It’s a time when they may consciously defy authority and disregard potential side effects. You may also notice seemingly unpredictable mood swings that make you feel like you’re navigating an emotional minefield when talking to them. Some of these mood shifts are likely influenced by hormones, so it’s important to give them and yourself some grace while remembering that teens are hyperaware of how they look and how people perceive them. Your role as a caregiver extends beyond providing physical care. You may find yourself serving as an emotional anchor, offering understanding, validation and unwavering support as your child progresses through these changes.

Parental Guidance

From my experience, caregivers often ask, “What are the best ways to talk about puberty?” I typically suggest that caregivers start the discussion while driving. This offers a closed, controlled environment and is one of the few times that the child cannot run away yelling, “MOOOMMM STTTOPPP!” I also suggest that they discuss these normal and expected changes with their child, both physical and emotional. Don’t be afraid to start the conversations early and repeatedly. Many teenagers have access to social media that continuously reinforce toxic and sometimes dangerous activities and harmful mindsets. As their caregivers, you’ll have to work extra hard to be a trustworthy guide who provides structure and security. Personally, I like to remind all caregivers that teens thrive under rules and boundaries that are there to keep them safe. To the teens, I like to remind them to be kind to themselves and be open to discussing these topics with their trusted adults.

Well-Child Visits

As we navigate the complexities of puberty, it’s essential to understand the role of medical professionals in supporting your child’s development. No matter how strong a bond between child and caregiver may be, some children may not want to discuss bodily changes and developing identities. Additionally, some questions may be too complex for you as a caregiver to answer. In these cases, you can seek advice from your child’s medical provider. Early adolescence is the first time that primary care providers may ask caregivers to step out of the exam room for a time to discuss health concerns with the child. This fosters a sense of independence and confidentiality so that children can freely discuss health concerns. Patient-provider confidentiality protects most topics, except suicidal ideation, self-harm or harm to others. The role of the medical provider in these visits is to address health concerns that were reported by the caregiver, caregiver and child, or child alone, while respecting caregiver rights and patient-provider privilege.

Unity in Puberty 

As we reflect on the journey from the first tentative conversations to the ongoing support provided by medical professionals, let’s remember that puberty is not just about the physical changes; it’s about nurturing a sense of self, fostering open communication and building trusting relationships. By approaching puberty with empathy, openness and understanding, we can help adolescents embrace this transformative time with grace and resilience. Puberty takes years, and it’s impossible to cover everything in a short blog post. For additional information, check out this article from the American Academy of Family Physicians and this resource guide from MedlinePlus. Don’t be afraid to ask your healthcare provider any other questions you may have as well.

If you don’t have a primary care doctor, or you’re looking for a new one, NGPG has many qualified providers. You can search for one and book an appointment online