The Pre-Teen Series: Physical Development—What parents need to know

As your child enters her preteen years, her body is starting to change and grow. For your child it could be a period of confusion & many questions. Here’s how you, as a parent, can help your pre-teen

By Dr Priya Kayastha Anand and Dr Meghna Singhal

The Pre-Teen Series: Physical Development—What parents need to know

This is the first of three articles in The Pre-teen Series. Find the second article here.

Ramila, 9, is surprised to see herself in the mirror after her bath. She sees her breast buds (the first signs of breasts) and touches them gently. The visual image of a mother breastfeeding her baby comes to her mind. What is happening to her body? Panic-stricken, she thinks: “Am I also going to give birth to a baby?” She quickly gets dressed and rushes out, her mind full of fear…

Amit, 12, has suddenly become uncomfortable speaking in front of his friends. For some reason, his voice sounds funny. It has started to crack and change. He is finding it difficult to control it. Sometimes, he ends up squeaking. His peer group members are not having the same problem. Why is this happening? Does he have some disease? Amit feels anxious and disturbed…

The above examples highlight the unfolding physical development in the pre-teen years, roughly 9 to 12 years of age. What are these physical changes and why do they happen? How can parents help their growing children through these confusing changes?

Puberty

Puberty is a normal phase of development that occurs when a child transitions into adolescence. It is a significant phase characterised by physical growth and development, brain changes, and social and emotional changes. As parents, you should be aware that these signs of maturity show up at different times for different children.
Puberty starts when the changes in your child’s brain are brought on by the production of sex hormones (estrogen in girls and testosterone in boys). However, since early changes in your child’s brain or hormones cannot be seen from the outside, it’s easy to think that puberty hasn’t started.
James Tanner, a child development expert, identified five stages of puberty. Known as Tanner stages (see box), or sexual maturity ratings, they serve as a guide to physical development in pre-teens and teens, though each person has a different puberty timetable. The average age for girls to begin puberty is 11 years, while for boys the average age is 12 years. But it's different for everyone, so don't worry if your child reaches puberty before or after their friends. It's completely normal for puberty to begin at any point from the ages of 8 to 14 years. The process can take up to 4 years.  There is no to know exactly when your child will start puberty.

The Pre-Teen Series: Physical Development—What parents need to know

Tanner stage 1 describes a child’s appearance before any physical changes of puberty appear. This stage marks the beginning of the brain sending signals to the body to prepare for changes.
Tanner stage 2 marks the beginning of puberty. That is, primary sexual characteristics (those that are present from birth- penis and testes in boys and vagina and ovaries in girls) start to grow and develop.

If you have a daughter (9-11 years of age), these are the changes you could expect:

  • The first signs of breasts (called buds) will appear and the areola (dark area around the nipple) will expand. It is normal for breasts to be tender and for the right and left breasts to grow at different rates
  • Pubic hair will appear and begin to get thicker. Your daughter’s body shape will also change (for example, her hips will widen). Girls with higher body mass index experience an earlier onset of puberty
  • Your daughter will experience a growth spurt and will get taller. The growth is uneven (for example, the head and hands may grow faster than the rest of the body) and many pre-teens appear out of proportion. Because of these changes they tend to feel clumsy and become self-conscious about their looks
  • Your daughter will get a clear or whitish discharge from her vagina several months before her periods start
  • A year or two after she begins puberty, your daughter may experience menarche (her first period). Several research studies report a declining trend in menarcheal age among girls across the globe, with the Indian average being 12 years of age. For example, a research published in Indian Paediatrics in 2016 reported the average age of menarche as 12.4 years among 2010 Delhi school girls. Another research published in the International Journal of Contemporary Pediatrics reported the age of attainment of menarche to be 12.5 years among 430 girls in Sikkim

If you have a son (around 11 years of age), these are the changes you could expect:

  • His penis, testicles, and scrotum (skin around the testicles) will increase in size. One testes may grow at a different rate than the other
  • Pubic hair will appear and begin to get thicker

Puberty is usually completed in two to five years (around age 15; Tanner Stage 5). This is when the secondary sexual characteristics (those that appear in the pubescent period- e.g., breasts in girls and pigmented facial hair in boys) develop fully.

Other Physical changes
With physical maturity, your pre-teen will have better gross and fine motor skills. During the pre-teen years, children show higher flexibility, balance and strength. Muscles increase in strength and size, and hand-eye coordination gets better.
Many of your child’s organs will get bigger and stronger. Bones will increase in thickness and volume. Your pre-teen will gain weight. His requirement of food will increase.
During puberty, a new sweat gland develops in the armpit and genital area. When skin bacteria feeds off the sweat, it produces body odour. Acne can result from skin glands producing more oil.
Your pre-teen’s sleep patterns may change. The brain re-sets the body clock during puberty. Your pre-teen now needs more sleep than she did before she hit puberty.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Talk openly about puberty:

  • Be cued in to your child and observe the pubertal changes in her body. In general girls start their periods about 2–2½ years after their breast buds start to develop. When you notice these pubertal changes you could initiate puberty-related conversations with your child. Ensure that your explanations are simple and age-appropriate
  • Don’t wait for your pre-teen to come to you with questions. Your child may not know its okay to talk to you about this sensitive topic. Use day-to-day situations to initiate conversations about puberty
  • It is a good idea to have a series of ongoing conversations with your pre-teen about the physical changes he can expect in advance. Find out what your child already knows first. Then, give him the facts and correct any misinformation
  • Provide your child with authentic and reliable information about her changing body. Be available to answer questions and talk openly with your child about whatever is bothering her
  • It is important to use the correct biological names for body parts and genitals
  • When a child enters puberty either earlier or later than his peers it can make him self-conscious (as in the case of Amit above), anxious, and even depressed. Parents need to explain to their child that puberty is a perfectly normal phase of their development. And, that there is a wide variation in when children attain puberty. It is important to speak in a practical and reassuring manner
  • When you talk about puberty, make sure you also address the social and emotional changes. Talk about how hitting puberty can impact the way your pre-teen responds to peer influences and feeling attracted to opposite (or same) gender- called crushes. Don’t dismiss romantic feelings as insignificant
  • Together with your pre-teen you could read books that talk about puberty (see box)
The Pre-Teen Series: Physical Development—What parents need to know

Talk to your girl (and boy) about periods: It is a good idea to educate your pre-teen about periods- why they happen and what they entail. Keep your explanations simple and reassuring. It is also important to talk to boys about periods openly, so that they also have correct information and can support their peers or siblings. 

EXPERT SPEAK
ParentCircle interacted with Bonnie J. Rough, author of the book Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids about Sex, Love, and Equality, on how parents can introduce the subject of periods without feeling embarrassed and awkward. Here’s what she said:

“It might sound silly, but if you want to make it easy, the best thing to do is practice. When you are alone or with a friend or parenting partner you trust, you can practice using correct terminology and acting like it’s perfectly normal to talk about these things—because it can be so! If you feel embarrassed or awkward while you rehearse using a normal chatty voice to talk about periods, then go ahead and let yourself laugh! You can also be really honest with your kids by telling them something like this: “I think it’s important for our family to treat menstruation as normal and healthy—but nobody approached it that way with me when I was growing up, so I’ll be trying my best and we’ll learn together. I’ll try to help you, and you can help me, too.” Finally, if you need a little extra inspiration, you can consider that talking about periods puts wind in the sails of the next generation. It’s a gift to give young people of all genders the skills, tools, and vocabulary they need to communicate respectfully, clearly, and openly with one another. That will bring them closer and empower them to do great things in solidarity with one another.”

Provide personal care supplies: Ensure your pre-teen knows about and has necessary personal care supplies. Take your girl out shopping for her first bra. Your daughter should know how to use a sanitary napkin or menstrual cup. When she is nearing menarche, make sure she is prepared with a few napkins tucked into her personal bag, should she start her periods in school or when you are not around. Provide both boys and girls with antiperspirants to deal with body odour and products to deal with acne breakouts

Reassure about body image: Pre-teens often measure their self-worth by their physical appearance, clothes and accessories, and number of friends. Since their body is changing, and in an awkward way, they tend to have body image issues. Research shows that almost 80% of adolescents don’t like the way they look.

Never body-shame your pre-teen: In addition, make her realise that bodies come in all shapes, sizes and shades, and it is important to love one’s body. Never compare her body to those of others.

Value their privacy: Pre-teens are adjusting to their changing bodies and during this period, they value their privacy greatly. You could always knock before entering your pre-teen’s room.
Says Piyali Ghosh, art teacher and mother of a pre-teen girl: “Children of this age are very conscious of their looks and appearance. They become very particular about wearing stylish clothes, hairstyle, makeup, and accessories. They want their privacy and often lock themselves inside the room spending hours before a mirror. It is important for parents to respect their personal space.”

Questions about sexuality: It is important that you address the topic of sexuality with your pre-teen. Sexuality is much more than sexual intercourse and entails intimacy, emotions, caring, consent, sexual orientation, and reproduction. Talk about respecting each other’s feelings and wishes. Reiterate the differences between good touch and bad touch you might have explained to them at an earlier age. Explain the difference between gender and sex. Talk about consent using simple easy examples. Discuss homosexuality and other sensitive subjects freely should the topics or questions arise. Such in-depth discussions with your child will help ease any discomfort he might be feeling and ensure he has reliable information.

Focus on nutrition: As the pre-teen years are a period of rapid growth, your child’s appetite is likely to increase. Nutrition plays a vital role in the normal growth process. On one hand, if your child is undernourished, it may stunt the her overall growth and this may also result in cognitive, emotional, and behavioural problems. On the other hand, eating junk food and consuming sugary drinks may cause obesity and associated health issues. As a parent ensure your pre-teen follows a nutritious, well-balanced diet.

Motivate your pre-teen to exercise: Encourage your pre-teen to increase his physical activity levels and reduce screen and gadget time. Regular exercise stimulates physical growth and helps maintain emotional well-being as well. Encourage your pre-teen to exercise regularly- swimming, jogging, dancing, walking, yoga, or play an organised sport such as badminton, tennis, etc. It is well-known that children who participate in sports have higher self-esteem and perform better in school. Also, pre-teens learn a great deal from team sports – how to handle competition, how to work towards a goal, and how to deal with both winning and losing.

Encourage healthy sleep routines: Pre-teens need 10 to 12 hours of good-quality sleep. Ensure your child sticks to a regular bedtime. Set rules about turning off screens an hour before bedtime, and don’t give your child sugary foods or caffeinated drinks after 6 p.m.

In a nutshell

  • The pre-teen years are when hormonal and physical changes take place
  • It’s normal for puberty to range from 8-16 years in girls and 9-14 years in boys. There is no way of knowing exactly when your child will start puberty.
  • A parent needs to understand these changes to support their child through this confusing period
  • It is a good idea to have a series of ongoing conversations with your pre-teen about the physical changes he can expect ahead of time. First, find out what your child already knows. Then, give him the facts and correct any misinformation

What you could do right away

  • Sit down with your child and explain the physical and hormonal changes in pre-teen bodies before they set in
  • Encourage your child to ask questions about puberty and provide age-appropriate explanations whenever required
  • Make sure you spend time with your pre-teen to connect regularly and make her feel comfortable about all the changes she is going through 

About the authors:
Written by Priya Kayastha Anand, PhD and Meghna Singhal, PhD on 27 August 2019.
Dr Anand is a consultant clinical psychologist practicing in private set-up in south Bangalore. She has extensive experience in working with families and providing psychotherapy and psychological assessments with adults, adolescence and children.

Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle

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