Over the weekend, I met with my book club to discuss the book A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce (if you haven’t read it, I’d recommend it). Essentially, and avoiding any spoilers for those of you who may want to pick it up, the book is a bewildering, and at times very painful, tale about a boy’s experience throughout puberty. All the parts of him are so evidently changed throughout; his physical body and the way he experiences it, the way he socializes with and thinks about other characters who recur throughout the book, his spirituality and connection to his religion, and his internal emotional experience. His entire identity shifts, so that the narration of the book which starts with the third person perspective, eventually becomes first person, as the boy himself takes ownership over his own narrative.
The word that kept coming up for all the members of my book club was “disoriented”. The experience most of us shared as we were reading the book was one of disorientation, as the main character struggled to orient himself in a world that seemed to be changing before his eyes, as he was changing internally. What a profound thought about a topic that is typically only talked about in a physical sense -- that most puberty or sex education focuses on changes to the physical body and stops there, leaving children to grope in the darkness of a world that feels vaguely familiar but can seem so foreign at this developmental time period.
Talking to children about puberty can create many different feelings for parents. Some parents feel anxious about teaching their children about how bodies change (and why). Others may feel excited to help their child as they enter a new stage of development. It is very common for parents to feel sadness as their child moves into adolescence. As the child’s body changes, they look less like a young child and begin to look more like an adult, stirring up a sense of grief or loss for some parents. Prepare Yourself First Preparing yourself, as the parent, for some of the feelings that may arise in you is the first step in helping your child understand the changes that will be brought on by puberty. If you’ve ever been on a commercial airline flight, the attendants implore you to affix your own oxygen mask to your face before assisting others, in case of emergencies. This is the philosophy we use here at Journey, when assisting parents as they help prepare and move with their children through different developmental stages.
Looking back to our blog post about food and helping children develop healthy eating habits, I encouraged parents to examine their own relationship with food before trying to understand and help their child create a solid relationship with eating. Again, because the parent is a guide for their child, I want to encourage parents to look back on their own experiences going through puberty, now being on the other side of it by more than a few years.
Your Experience Adults I have worked with have had widely varying experiences around learning about puberty. Some had parents who sat them down to talk very directly about how their body would change, why these changes occur, safety in sexual practices, emotional and physical intimacy with another person, consent, and what guidelines their spiritual or religious affiliations have in regards to sex. Others did not receive any kind of preparation for puberty and were confused and scared about what their bodies were suddenly going through, like growing hair or starting a period. Those who were not prepared by parents typically had friends with whom they could muddle through the experience.
If your parents taught you about puberty, what kind of feelings do you remember having during and after the conversations? Did you feel comfortable enough to ask questions or address concerns with your parents? Likely, the feelings you experienced were not only your own but also your parents’, as parents often set the tone for conversations with their children. If your parent seemed awkward and embarrassed during the conversation about puberty with you, their feelings likely exacerbated any embarrassment you may have felt, and perhaps even made you feel uncomfortable about asking questions.
When preparing yourself for a conversation about puberty with your child, it is very important to acknowledge, understand, and contain your own feelings about having this conversation, and continue to do this during the conversation. This allows you to keep the focus on your child’s experience and makes you more available to them for any questions or concerns they may have. It is equally important, especially if your parents did not talk with you about puberty, that you have a good understanding of the bodily processes children experience when puberty starts and as they progress through it. If you aren’t sure about the physical processes, I really like this website to help explain bodily changes. The content is written for pre-adolescents and adolescents and gives a great overview of all the different ways bodies change during puberty.
Understand Social and Emotional Changes in Your Child As mentioned before, puberty doesn’t just change a child’s body, but all of their social, emotional, and cognitive experiences during and after puberty is complete. The developmental tasks of puberty serve, in essence, to prepare the child for young adulthood and beyond. Keeping this in mind as you think about what you’d like your growing child to have the skills to achieve in adulthood is a great way to try to understand some of their behaviors (which may seem odd at times!). What is the behavior? What might it have to do with the changes your child is going through? Does the behavior indicate a wish to master some social or emotional developmental skill?
Many parents of my pre-teen and teenage clients lament that they don’t understand their child’s behaviors anymore and that their behaviors have changed drastically upon entering adolescence. When a teen fails a class, after historically being on the honor roll, we think together about what the teenager is experiencing. Are they trying to fit into a particular social group and not spending enough time focused on other areas of their life? If so, we think about how to help the child meet their social needs, while also supporting their developing executive functioning skills and time management. Is the child attempting to question (albeit, not verbally) the importance of education and the role they wish to play in their own education? Parents can help children struggling in school by framing responsibility as something that can feel good because it means they are growing up and don’t need parents quite as much or in the same way. Most of my teenage clients really enjoy thinking about their own growing autonomy, and when parents frame being responsible for themselves this way, pre-teens and teens typically begin to rise to the occasion, especially if more privileges are tied to more successes in personal responsibility (such as a later curfew, being able to be left alone at the movies or a school football game with friends, etc.).
Some parents have difficulty keeping in mind that their child’s behaviors during puberty are not personal, especially because children undergoing changes in hormones can say and do some very hurtful things when they are angry or agitated (occasionally for no reason other than a dip or spike in certain hormones). Being able to remain as objective as you can if your child begins to struggle with their feelings and behaviors is important because they are likely emotionally overwhelmed in these moments and need your guidance, even if they attempt to shun it. Remaining in a place of empathy with your child is containing for them and their big feelings, and models for them how to hold onto loving feelings, even in anger or frustration. As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, remaining in a place of empathy does not mean excusing hurtful or unacceptable behavior, or not setting limits and boundaries with your child. Remaining in empathy with your child is understanding that their behavior does not indicate that they are bad, or a lack of efficacy in your own parenting skills as you’ve parented them, but that this is a very bewildering time for them as they try to master many difficult developmental tasks. Your boundaries and limits are set from this understanding and help guide them in helpful ways to successfully master the tasks of slowing down, thinking through their experience, and intentionally deciding how to handle issues that arise.
But What are the Tasks of Puberty?
When outlining the tasks of puberty, we first must outline the areas of development. Areas of development include (but may not be limited to); social, emotional, physical, spiritual, and cognitive developmental areas. Tasks for each area might look different, but overlap with each other to create your whole child, the whole child being greater than the sum of their parts! Tasks within these areas are the goals we wish to see adolescents master by the end of adolescence. For example, a cognitive-developmental task in adolescence is to explore emerging flexibility in thought about the world at large, which is why we often see so many adolescents attempting to understand and talk about political issues with others, exploring new, and often experimental, types of music and art, or arguing with Uncle Jack about the realities of systemic racism at a family get together. Teens are beginning to experience, cognitively, the gray areas of content that they once rigidly held before as “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”.
An emotional task of adolescence, and overlapping with the cognitive task just mentioned, is the task of resolving the dissonance created by loving and feeling close to someone and learning they differ (sometimes entirely!) in perspectives or opinions. Additionally, adolescents are practicing how, and even if, to accept another’s differing opinion or perspective, which necessitates at times a reorganization of relational priorities. Socially (and again, overlapping with the aforementioned cognitive and emotional tasks), pre-teens and teens begin to look for and establish caring and safe relationships with adults outside of the home. This can include coaches, teachers, neighbors, therapists, and scout leaders. I have found that parents often struggle with a sense of loss when their pre-teen or teen has a relationship with a coach that seems closer than their own relationship. The important thing to keep in mind if you struggle with these feelings is that your feelings are entirely typical and valid and your teen’s close relationship with safe adult mentors is good and healthy. No one will ever replace the role a parent plays in their child’s life -- they simply add to the child’s growing understanding of what a caring and stable adult looks like -- which is what we wish for them in adulthood!
If you’d like more information on developmental tasks of adolescence and puberty, I really like this concise list from MIT. If you find that you are struggling with parenting your teen, or your teen seems to be having difficulties socially or emotionally that seem disruptive in a way that is outside of the normal limits, please feel free to reach out to me for referrals and resources at email@example.com.