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The Preteen Series: A Parent’s Guide To Puberty, Plus How To Help Children Cope

Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal 13 Mins Read

Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal


As your child enters their preteen years, their body starts to change and grow. For your child it could be a period of confusion and many questions. Here’s how you, as a parent, can help your preteen handle the physical and emotional changes with confidence

The Preteen Series: A Parent’s Guide To Puberty, Plus How To Help Children Cope

This is the first of three articles in The Pre-teen Series. Find the second article here and the third 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 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, and he feels embarrassed when his voice cracks. He is finding it difficult to control it. Sometimes he ends up squeaking. His friends 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 children when they enter their preteen years, roughly 9–12 years of age. What are these physical changes, and why do they happen? How can you help your growing children through these confusing changes?

What is puberty?

Puberty is a normal phase of development that occurs when a child transitions into adolescence. It’s a significant phase characterized 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). As these early hormone-driven changes are not visible to you, you may think that puberty hasn’t started. On average, girls begin puberty at 11 years while for boys it begins at 12 years. If your child hits puberty earlier or later than their friends, don’t worry, because puberty doesn’t start at the same age for everyone. For example, girls with higher body mass index experienced early puberty. So, puberty may begin at any point from the ages of 8 to 14 years, and it’s usually completed in 2–5 years (around age 15; Tanner Stage 5).

Stages of puberty

It was James Tanner, a child development expert, who first identified the five visible stages of puberty. Known as Tanner stages, or sexual maturity ratings, they serve as a general guide to physical development in preteens and teens.

Tanner Stage 1: Describes a child’s appearance before any physical changes of puberty appear. In this stage, the brain starts sending signals to the body to prepare for changes.

Tanner Stage 2: Marks the beginning of puberty, with the appearance of the early physical changes.

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

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

  • The first signs of breasts (called buds) will appear and the areola (dark area around the nipple) will expand. It’s 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).
  • 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 preteens appear out of proportion. Because of these changes, they tend to feel clumsy and become self-conscious about their looks.
  • Your daughter will have 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 study published in Indian Paediatrics in 2016 reported the average age of menarche as 12.4 years among 2,010 Delhi schoolgirls (aged 6–17). Another research published in the International Journal of Contemporary Pediatrics in 2017 found the average age for menarche to be 12.5 years among schoolgirls in Sikkim (430 girls aged 10–19 years participated in the study).

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 testicle may grow at a different rate than the other
  • Pubic hair will appear and begin to get thicker

Other physical changes

Here are some more changes that happen during puberty:

  • Your preteen will have better gross and fine motor skills, and show higher flexibility, balance and strength.
  • Muscles increase in strength and size, and hand-eye coordination gets better.
  • Organs like bones will get bigger and stronger.
  • The sweat glands in the armpits and genital area produce more sweat. When skin bacteria breaks down the sweat, it produces body odor, which is one of the signs of puberty.
  • Acne can result from skin glands producing more oil.
  • Your preteen’s sleep patterns may change. The brain resets the body clock during puberty. Your preteen now needs more sleep than they did before they hit puberty.

How you can help

Talk openly about puberty

  • In general, girls start their periods about 2–2.5 years after their breast buds start to develop. When you notice these pubertal changes, initiate puberty-related conversations with your child. Ensure that your explanations are simple and age-appropriate.
  • Don’t wait for your preteen to come to you with questions. Your child may not know it’s okay to talk to you about this sensitive topic. Use day-to-day situations to initiate conversations about puberty.
  • It’s a good idea to have a series of ongoing conversations with your preteen about the physical changes they can expect. First, find out what your child already knows. Then, give them the facts, and correct any misinformation.
  • Provide your child with authentic and reliable information about their changing body. Be available to answer questions, and talk openly with your child about whatever is bothering them.
  • It’s important to use the correct biological names for body parts and genitals.
  • When a child enters puberty either earlier or later than their peers, it can make them self-conscious (as in the case of Amit above), anxious, and even depressed. So, explain to your child that puberty is a perfectly normal phase of development and that all children don’t attain puberty at the same age. Try 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 preteen responds to peer influences and can make them feel attracted to opposite (or same) gender (crushes). Don’t dismiss romantic feelings as insignificant.

Together with your preteen read books that talk about puberty (see the box below).

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.

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 preteen knows about—and has—the 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 odor and products to deal with acne breakouts.

Reassure about body image: Preteens often measure their self-worth by their physical appearance, clothes and accessories, and a number of friends. Since their body is changing and in an awkward way, they tend to have body image issues.

Never body-shame your preteen: Help your child understand that bodies come in all shapes, sizes, and shades, and that it’s important to love one’s body. Never compare their body with those of others.

Value their privacy: Preteens are adjusting to their changing bodies, and during this period, they value their privacy greatly. So, always knock before entering your preteen’s room. As Piyali Ghosh, art teacher and mother of a preteen girl, says: “Children of this age are very conscious of their looks. They are very particular about wearing stylish clothes, hairstyles, makeup, and accessories. They want their privacy and often lock themselves inside the room, spending hours before a mirror. As parents, we need to respect their personal space.”

Discuss sexuality: Address the topic of sexuality with your preteen. 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 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 they might be feeling, and ensure they have reliable information.

Focus on nutrition: As the preteen years are a period of rapid growth, your child’s appetite is likely to increase. If your child is undernourished, it may stunt their overall growth, and this may lead to cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems. On the other hand, eating junk food and consuming sugary drinks may cause obesity and associated health issues. As a parent, ensure your preteen follows a nutritious, well-balanced diet.

Motivate your preteen to exercise: Encourage your preteen to increase their physical activity levels, and reduce screen and gadget time. Regular exercise stimulates physical growth and helps maintain emotional well-being as well. So, encourage your preteen to do regular physical activities, such as swimming, jogging, dancing, walking and yoga, or to play sports (badminton, tennis). It’s well-known that children who participate in sports have higher self-esteem and perform better in school. Also, preteens learn a great deal from team sports, such as how to handle competition, how to work toward a goal, and how to deal with winning and losing.

Encourage healthy sleep routines: Preteens 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.
  • There’s no way to know exactly when your child will start puberty. But on average, girls begin puberty at 11 years while for boys it begins at 12 years.
  • Understand the physical changes to support children through this confusing period.
  • Have a series of ongoing conversations with your preteen about the physical changes they can expect soon. First, find out what your child already knows. Then, give them 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
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