Health & Science

How to talk to your tween as they prepare to enter puberty

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The teen years are notoriously challenging, for kids and parents alike. There are tons of resources on navigating this developmental stage, but what about the years before it? The preteens, or tweens, tend to be an overlooked stage in a child’s development, even though it’s a crucially important time for their minds and bodies as they prepare to enter puberty.

In fact, puberty is starting for many kids these days during the preteen stage, so it’s important to talk to your tween about the changes their bodies might go through during this time. Here are some tips and scripts to follow when explaining those changes to your child.

What happens as puberty approaches

Growth spurts are common for tweens, and may cause aches and pains, along with awkward, clumsy movements as they learn to move in their growing bodies. Kids this age may also start to grow body hair and their skin may become oilier and sweatier. These physical changes often cause kids to feel self-conscious and concerned about their body image.

Here’s what you can say—

“Have you noticed any changes in your body recently? How are you feeling about them? I know it might feel strange to have so many changes happening to you right now. It’s a completely normal part of growing up, and pretty much everyone goes through it around your age…even me!”

“Puberty is what it’s called when your body starts becoming more grown up. You might feel excited about it, nervous about it, or a mix of both! If you’re ever confused or worried about anything, my door is always open.”

You’ll want to revisit this conversation occasionally as they continue to develop, and check back in with them on their self-image and overall feelings about the changes they’re experiencing. You may even want to offer a way for them to ask questions or share concerns outside of a formal conversation with you, in case it puts them more at ease. You might leave a little mailbox outside of your room where they can leave notes, or start a private chat with them where they can text their questions.

Kids assigned female at birth

Girls tend to enter puberty a little bit earlier than boys, sometimes even as early as 9 years old. The biggest difference in the girls’ experience of puberty is getting their first period. Being open and honest about what’s coming can dispel a lot of the fears and misconceptions many young people have about periods and menstruating bodies, and buying them some different period products ahead of time can help them feel prepared (and even excited!) when the time comes.

Here’s what you can say—

“Sometime in the next couple of years you’ll probably get your first period. Do you have any questions about it? Let’s go to the store and pick out a few products we can look at, and I’ll show you how to use them. That way, you’ll be ready when it happens!”

As they get taller, their body shape will also start to change, as they develop more curves. These changes can lead to the premature sexualization of girls by others, so it’s important to emphasize the importance of consent and boundaries when you talk about their changing bodies. 

Here’s what you can say—

“Your body will start to look curvier as you get older, and that’s normal and beautiful! If anyone ever comments on your body, or says or does anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or like your space is being violated, tell them ‘NO!’ and walk away, then tell me right away. Unfortunately, some men and older boys may have grown up learning it’s OK to comment on a girl’s body, but it’s not OK and you should never have to feel unsafe.”

Kids assigned male at birth

Tween boys are starting to grow like weeds, though they may lag a bit behind their female peers at first. Boys at this stage of development will start to look broader and gain more muscle, and their voices may start to get deeper. They may also start to experience more erections and possibly nocturnal emissions as their reproductive system becomes more developed. These changes can be alarming to growing boys, so it’s helpful to normalize them and put them in context.

Here’s what you can say—

“Your penis may become hard more frequently during the next few years, which is totally normal. You may even ejaculate fluid from your penis while you’re sleeping. If that happens, don’t worry, you can just put your sheets straight in the washing machine. As you get older, you’ll be able to control it much more!”

Because boys are starting to be socialized to be more sexually focused by their peers, media, and all kinds of other factors during their tweens and teens, it’s a good idea to reinforce the importance of consent with them.

Here’s what you can say—

“You may start to feel more interested in sex, or notice that the other boys your age are talking about it more. That’s a totally normal part of getting older, but it’s SO important to remember that we never touch or comment on anyone’s body without their permission. If you’re ever unsure if someone feels comfortable with what you’re doing or saying…STOP!”

You want your child to leave the conversation with the knowledge that they have an open line of communication with you about all things puberty, and that you’ll continue to revisit the topic as they continue to grow and change.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.