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Hormones, growth spurts, acne: What parents, preteens need to know about puberty

If you think the adolescent years are filled with fun and frivolity, think again. It is increasingly turning into a time of stress and expectations, just ask a teenager how they are feeling.
It’s during adolescence that kids go through major changes to their psychological development, according to the experts. Getty Images

TORONTO – His voice deepens, he grows a little stubble and he’s suddenly very cognizant of the opposite sex. Meanwhile, she’s growing into training bras and learning about her monthly cycle.

They’re the telltale signs your child is going through puberty – the especially tricky and terrifying welcome into young adulthood.

Not only are their bodies changing, but adolescents’ psychological development is also transforming at warp speed, according to Canadian researchers.

“Second to pregnancy, this is the most rapid time of hormonal change in the human life cycle. So much of what we’re experiencing at this time is this biological phenomenon called puberty,” Dr. Shimi Kang, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist and parenting author, told Global News.

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“It can be difficult and confusing. That’s not an excuse for adolescents to be irritable and disruptive, but it can be a rollercoaster sometimes,” Dr. Megan Harrison, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, said. She specializes in adolescent medicine at the Ottawa-based hospital.

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The experts break down the changes marked by puberty and how parents and teens can cope:

It starts at a different time for boys and girls: It’s the hypothalamus – the portion of the brain that produces hormones – that triggers the start of puberty. There’s more testosterone in men, and estrogen in women, and in turn, their bodies start to change (pubic hair, facial hair, and growth spurts, as prime examples). For boys, signs of puberty begin at around 10 to 14 years old, and it takes about five to six years to get through all the stages. But it begins much earlier in girls, starting at about eight to 13 years old, and it takes between three to five years for them to go through puberty, Harrison said.

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They feel like they look funny: Gangly limbs, squeaky voices, and spotty mustaches make appearances on growing boys. Throw in wrapping your head around menstruation and wider hips and a bust for young girls, and you’ll understand why kids’ body image and self-confidence take a hit during these tumultuous years. Girls typically gain more weight around the abdominal area before their period starts. Boys go through growth spurts in the final stages of puberty at 13 to 15. They could be growing at about 10 centimetres per year. “It’s impressive,” Harrison said.

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There are big changes beneath the exterior, too: It’s during adolescence that kids go through major changes to their psychological development, according to the experts. “Anytime you see your child growing, just know their brains are looking different from day to day, too. You’re looking at a work of art in transition,” Kang said. So what’s going on in their minds? They develop more abstract thinking, their thought processes deepen and they start to consider the viewpoints of others. There’s also piecing together their identities, morals and sexuality, Harrison said.

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Your relationship gets pushed aside for their peers: Remember when you wouldn’t be caught at the mall with your parents? Hang onto that memory when your teenage daughter asks you to drop her off across the street from school. Part of the psychological change is a sense of autonomy from family, a need to become more independent from parents, Kang says.  “It’s important to recognize that the end goal of puberty is to have an adult that not only has the capability, but wants to leave home,” Kang explained. It’s this risk-taking that adolescents go through that primes them for, say, moving cities for university or moving out of the home when they’re older. It’s also their ability to make social connections with friends and fellow peers that help them survive outside of their homes.

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It’s okay for parents to struggle with this transformation, but here’s how to cope: “Your child has changed right before your eyes. It’s terrifying because you’re seeing behaviours that are uncharacteristic,” Kang said. For starters, be calm. Your child is going through incessant changes to his or her body and at school, while trying to figure out their place in the world. What they need is a source of stability, Harrison says. “If parents can be as even-keeled as possible, it’s reassuring. Provide unconditional support and a calm environment and they’ll find their way more smoothly,” she suggested.

Use your authority to be a good role model, too. Show them a healthy body image by eating healthy, exercising and being confident in your own skin. You may think your kids are learning from their peers and the Internet, but the experts suggests otherwise. Kids want to learn from their parents. And don’t minimize their plight – school dances and final exams don’t sound too stressful to you, but to your kids, this is their world.

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And here’s how to help your kids: Tell them that these changes are natural and universal. You can have this conversation earlier on, too, before puberty sets in. “It can be scary without knowing this is what’s supposed to happen. Be reassuring,” Harrison said. Have some reading materials ready, if needed. Don’t force it on your child but keep it somewhere around the home and let them know the resources are there. Guide your kids through these changes in independence, too. If your son is heading to a doctor’s appointment, stay in the room with them if needed, but let him steer the discussion. “It helps them take charge of their own health but with the parent as the main support,” Harrison said.

Finally, listen and pay attention: Kang says that more often than not, parents do all of the talking, but it has to be a balancing act. If the conversation veers into sex, drugs or other controversial issues, let your child voice his or her opinion. “It’s important to have back and forth because they’re learning more about themselves and their values. Healthy conflict teaches kids what their parents’ morals are,” Harrison said. This is a pivotal time to teach your child how to have a calm discussion. Kang also suggests that parents ask for permission before doling out advice. That way, you’re not coming off as lecturing your child.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca