It can turn around quickly in our brains, a series of events – partly humiliating, partly liberating – representing one of our greatest metamorphosis stages. Perhaps it was the trauma that compressed the experience. Or maybe once the end product – our adult selves – is made, it’s hard to trace it back to where it started.
But for those who go through it, adolescence is a long journey, which begins long before we can anticipate it and ends long afterwards. And the variability from child to child is enormous. It’s possible for a group of friends to collectively spend nearly 15 years in their teens, with early flowering starting at age 8 and ending late into their early 20s, said Dr Richard J. Chung, specialist in adolescent medicine. at Duke Health.
This long journey of adolescence becomes more manageable for all parties when viewed as slow and unique to each person. It helps parents and caregivers know when to worry and when to relax, when to explain and when to be quiet, and when to hold on tight and when to let go.
Some children go through puberty at the end of elementary school. Girls can start as early as 8 and boys as early as 9, a time that is considered “precocious puberty” in both cases, Chung said. Other children start puberty as late as high school. For girls, the last age tends to be around 13, and for boys, it is 14. The whole process can take anywhere from two to five years, although psychological maturity may take longer.
For boys, the first sign is testicular enlargement, which is gradual, Chung said. In girls, the first sign is what doctors call a â€œbreast budâ€ or small bumps under the nipple. These two phenomena are triggered by hormones and are followed by a series of physical, emotional and cognitive changes, including hair growth, as well as changes in muscle and fat mass. Two of the most notable milestones are the onset of menstruation, or menarche, in girls and the onset of sperm production, or spermarche, in boys.
Chung said parents may be inclined to attribute their children’s psychological changes to the hormones causing those physical changes, but the relationship is not always clear.
â€œWe can try to make a direct link between hormonal changes and mood swings during this time of life, but there is no perfect correlation. There are many reasons why young people may start to act in different ways that are unrelated to hormonal differences, “he said.
“It’s tempting for a parent to try to analyze everything, but the main message is that it’s complicated. Not only the physical and hormonal part, but also the progression of social, emotional and wider neurological development.”
There is a lot going on and there is no one-size-fits-all roadmap. Puberty plays out very differently for each person, which is probably obvious to anyone who has ever seen an eighth grade class photo. There are women among girls, men among boys, and non-binary adults among others who scan like children.
â€œThere is usually a particular process, including when it starts, how the sequence progresses, but there are also a lot of variations on the theme,â€ Chung said.
â€œWe talk about it a lot with parents and young people because a lot of times they go to Google and find that something is wrong with the script and that can cause a lot of anxiety,â€ he said. “For the most part, it’s a variation of the typical experience.”
Chung wants parents to help their children move beyond the typical or normal versus the atypical and abnormal state of mind. That said, he doesn’t want them to hesitate to report any concerns to their doctor, who could help confirm that there is in fact no problem.
He also wants parents to make sure their children feel comfortable discussing any changes in their bodies with them. This can happen by giving children an idea of â€‹â€‹the changes that will occur before they get going, as well as making room for any concerns while puberty is in progress. These mini biology courses will help them make sense of their experience.
It’s much more common for parents to have a conversation about menstruation with girls than it is to discuss sperm production with boys, Chung said. Therefore, boys may be more likely to feel ashamed about ejaculating than girls about their period.
â€œPaediatricians and other child health professionals need to do a better job with (talk about spermarche), really partner with parents and other people and make that part of your conversation, and normalize all of that. dramatic physical changes, â€he said. “Also, it’s important to disentangle it from conversations about sexuality.”
While there is a clear relationship between ejaculations and sex, the two don’t necessarily overlap for boys going through puberty. Chung said keeping these conversations separate can help reduce the stigma around them.
Early and late flowering
During puberty, no one feels normal. Early bloomer, late bloomer, medium bloomer, whatever. It’s a time when you feel like you don’t belong; like you, and only you, are a little weird.
For girls who thrive early, be aware of how they can be sexualized by those around them, including adults, said Dr Jess Shatkin, vice president of education and professor of psychiatry at child and adolescent at the Child Study Center at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital in NYU Langone Health.
For boys who mature early, Shatkin added, parents need to remember that this will make them more prone to risky behavior at a younger age than their peers. Speaking of evolution, that makes sense. This is how humans, especially men, have established their role at the top of the social hierarchy for much of human history when we have hunted for food and lived off the land. Survival required risk.
Shatkin said that sooner or later your child matures on his own doesn’t necessarily mean you need to worry about their emotional state or seek professional psychological help.
â€œNot everyone needs a psychiatrist or a therapist. Children can go through it well with caring family and friends,â€ he said. “Talk to your kids, and it’s not just one conversation, and ask them how they’re doing.”
“Remind them that this is not something they have to master. It is a wide and wide range of human experiences.”
Emotional red flags
Adolescence is full of ups and downs. These could be of concern when accompanied by abrupt changes in behavior, Shatkin said. If kids suddenly sleep more or less, are anxious, depressed, seem to be using drugs, lowering their grades, or arguing with all of their friends, then the red flag is raised. This is a good time to ask questions and possibly seek professional help.
For the most common upheavals, like fights with friends or a fight with a trainer, parents should offer support, but not solutions.
â€œHave curiosity, but don’t clean up their mess,â€ Shatkin said. “What confuses some parents is that they see their role of friend and protector. But you are not there to make your children happy all the time.”
Sometimes when they’re not ready to talk – and there will be times when they’re not ready to talk – support can just mean creating space and time to be together. Share cookies, take a walk. It’s not serious. Business alone can help.
â€œWhen you don’t know what to say, it’s always good to be there and listen,â€ Shatkin said.
Elissa strauss is a regular contributor to CNN, where she writes on the politics and culture of parenthood.