Middle schools should hand out This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained, a new book by Cara Natterson, MD and Vanessa Kroll Bennett, to their parent body. There is not one parent who doesn’t need the information that’s in there.
The authors of “This is So Awkward.”
LH: You explain the conversations around puberty are important, but there are lots of adults in their lives who will be sharing information, from teachers to doctors. Are there conversations that you think are ones our teens really need to have with a parent? What are some of the most important topics that must be had with a parent, rather than another caring adult in their lives.
Every family has its own dynamics and their particular set of values, so each approach will be slightly different in each home. Layer on top of that the personalities involved (kids and adults), and the possible variations of these conversations become exponentially different.
As kids get older and the conversations leap to higher stakes topics like drugs and alcohol or sex, we really hope that parents are in regular conversation with their kids. But for a variety of reasons, that may not be happening in every home.
Ultimately, kids need reliable and safe sources of information and sometimes there are other trusted adults – healthcare providers, teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, aunts and uncles and grandparents, to name a few – who can better provide that information. And that’s ok too.
LH: Why should we try to let go of our own puberty? What kind of baggage do we bring that can actually hinder us as the parents of teens?
Our own puberty experiences are seared into our brains, literally. And there’s a biological reason for that: through the late 20’s, the brain is under construction and experiences during this time can be like handprints in wet cement, staying with us long after the cement has dried. Traumatic episodes seal themselves into the brain particularly well, and parts of puberty can feel traumatic!
This neurobiology makes it really hard not to harken back to those formative years when we’re raising kids going through a similar process. The temptation is to share and reshare those memories with the kids in our lives. But we really urge adults to do that sparingly, for a very specific reason: going through puberty and adolescence is weighty enough for a kid without also carrying your adult’s baggage as well. Our job as caregivers is to help take the load off our kids emotionally, not add to it.
LH: One of the most important parts of talking is not talking. It is listening to what our kids are thinking and feeling and just being a safe place for them to discuss these changes in their lives. This is hard, really hard. You also say don’t lecture, and the classic puberty talks were just that, a lecture. What are some tips to help us listen and have a meaningful conversation in a way that helps our teens?
This is a really hard one. We get it! But kids tell us over and over again and that most often they just want their adults to listen to them. Or give them the piece of information they’re looking for and then leave it at that. Ideally, conversations become a give and take, where adults gauge where kids are on different topics and kids can ask questions, but we know it doesn’t always happen that way. Here are some favorite reminders:
LH: You talk about not lying even in the most uncomfortable conversations. And it seems obvious but the temptation to gloss over things or not be fully truthful about tough topics is there. Why is it so important to remain truthful even in situations where we might not feel fully comfortable.
The most important thing we have with our kids is trust. And trust isn’t just one way (although all the adult lecturing of kids about trust might make it seem that way!) They need to trust us as much as we need to trust them and when trust is lost, it’s really hard to win it back. Lying to a kid undermines trust at the moment when we most need it, so here are some suggestions for things adults can do when they’re tempted to lie:
LH: Puberty is lasting much longer and we now know that brain development lasts well into what we once thought of as a firmly adulthood, the 20s> What are the repercussions of this?
One of the most challenging aspects of modern puberty is that many kids appear much older than they actually are, leaving adults with unrealistic expectations for how a kid should behave in a variety of settings. A 12-year old who looks 16 is still developmentally 12, and has the decision making abilities of a tween.
The incongruence between appearance and behavior can be a hard one for adults to wrap their heads around. In addition, we know so much more about adolescent brains than we did before, particularly that the maturation of pathways to the prefrontal cortex (the CEO of the brain), which won’t finish until a kid hits their late 20’s (at best!).
So even when they’re done going through puberty and appear to all the world to be fully mature adults, they still have several more years of brain development to go before they can make reliably “adult” decisions with neurological ease.
LH: One of the topics that you touched upon that makes this all so difficult is how little our teens want to take advice from us. So you help us with lots of words and ideas of how we can have some of these awkward but uncomfortable conversations, but then as you say, our kids would rather listen to every other person on the planet rather than hear from us. First, why can’t they hear us, and it does seem like they can’t even hear us? And what can we do about it?
When our kids make us feel invisible, it is so hurtful. It feels really personal, particularly when as parents we do everything we can to care for them, support them, and lift them up. But we encourage parents to remember that it’s not just us, but adults in general who are less interesting to kids this age, and there’s a neurological reason behind it.
While their prefrontal cortices aren’t finished maturing until their late 20’s, by middle school their limbic systems (the pleasure-seeking, motivational, risk/reward center of the brain) are fully mature. Even more than that, brain imaging tells us that adults do NOT light up a tween or teens limbic system, but guess who does? Their peers! Which means that at this stage of development, kids are neurologically hard wired to find us uninteresting and therefore, less likely to want to hear what we have to say.
That doesn’t mean stop talking or stop trying, because the information does permeate over time. But it does mean pick your moments and try not to take it personally!
LH: Let’s talk about one of the most challenging parts of raising teens, it’s not the physical changes but the emotional ones. A couple of times you mentioned something I loved, that the first sign of puberty is a slammed door. I couldn’t help but laugh as I remember slamming the door on my parents so often at that age. Talk to us a little about why this happens, and when we just let them walk away and when we try to talk or provide comfort. We blame hormones, but you write that it is so much more than that. So often we are on the other side of that slammed door wondering what to do next. You tell us to avoid engaging and escalating, but that seems easier said than done.
This is definitely an example of do as we say not as we do! Yes we can give all this great advice about not engaging with an elevating teen, giving them space and time to cool down, not meeting their anger with anger and so on. Do we do it successfully ourselves? Hardly! But as with everything in caring for tweens and teens, practice makes better (never perfect).
So a few pieces of advice about managing the emotional roller coaster that is puberty and adolescence:
LH: Getting teens to sleep is one of the biggest challenges. With 24/7 access to entertainment and friends they have distractions that can keep them awake way into the night. You offer parents some great science and arguments to get kids to sleep including their growth. Can you go over some of the arguments parents can make to get kids to put the phone down and close their eyes, particularly when they keep telling you they aren’t tired and it appears to be true.
Leading with the big winner here: they grow when they sleep. Not at night, and not when they are in bed, but when they are deeply asleep. Explain that to a kid in your life who’d like to get a couple of extra inches of height, and they’ll be self-motivated to go to bed.
Sleep also resets mood, jumpstart metabolism, and file away memories. We all know how crummy it feels to sleep too little (or fitfully) – few of us are our best selves the next day. It turns out, we also tend to be hungrier because the hormones regulating satiety don’t reset properly, and we fail to file away all of the lessons from the prior day.
If you ever need an argument against pulling an all nighter and in favor of getting sleep before a big test, explain that the brain literally cannot store the memory of crammed knowledge when it’s sleep-deprived.
LH: Let’s talk about our teens’ brains for a moment. You delve into the scenario where we have a meaningful discussion about some of the dangerous situations that teens are faced with be it drugs or alcohol and we are talking to a reasonable person. Our teen understands these dangers and agrees to steer away from them. Then they go to a party and do the exact opposite. Many of us might feel that when they were sitting discussing this with us they were lying, but you explain that is not what actually happened. As they sat and agreed to certain behaviors they were not lying about their intentions, how is this?
Part of this is answered above in the question about kids not taking our advice. But, I would add this:
Talking to kids about the big topics like drugs, alcohol, and sex can make us feel like a broken record that keeps playing when everyone has left the room. While it may not feel like our kids are listening, particularly when they go out at night and do the very opposite of what we advised them to do, the information does seep in over time. Truly!
It’s important to remove the morality here – kids are not terrible people for saying one thing at home and doing another when they’re with friends. Instead, we advocate viewing this through the lens of skill building: we can teach kids some skills to take a moment before diving into doing something dumb or dangerous, like counting to 10, texting someone in order to get a moment to think, grabbing a glass of water.
Strategies that buy time for the consequential thinking part of their brains (there’s that prefrontal cortex again) to catch up paves the way for better decision making. Well, maybe…
LH: One piece of advice you offer parents, that I truly loved and needed, is don’t meet anger with anger. This is so hard in the moment. How can you help parents to step back from the abyss of yelling back at a teen who is yelling at them? It is easy to feel like we are right back to toddlerhood but this time with a large child having a tantrum. I had a mantra that I repeated to myself from the time they were toddlers, “I am the adult, he is the child. I am the adult, he is the child.”
Much of this is answered in the question about moods and slamming doors, but I would add that one of our favorite pieces of advice from Dr. Aliza Pressman is this: “All feelings are welcome, all behaviors are not.” You, as the adult, are allowed to set boundaries around behavior.
Just because they are on this emotional roller coaster doesn’t give them permission to be unkind or downright cruel. But they might not be able to get a grip in the moment so you can simply say – I am going to take a minute and step away. When you are ready to speak to me with the respect I deserve, I will continue this conversation with you.
LH: You share that nearly half of all teens have been diagnosed with a mental illness or mental health struggle and you share some of the basics like sleep nutrition and a healthy diet that can be helpful in combating some of their struggles. One of the most common questions that parents ask is how do I know when I have a moody teen, undergoing the typical strains of this age from when I have a teen who can use some more help and guidance from someone other than a parent? What should parents be looking for?
This is one of the biggest, hardest questions we get, because it can be very tought to tell. Many of the “symptoms” of puberty look, on paper at least, a lot like symptoms of depression or anxiety. From sleep disruption to changes in appetite to mood swings, how do you know when something is part of the expected-but-tumultuous path through puberty and when there’s a bigger mental health concern at play?
The best advice we can give is this: if you’re asking the question, there’s not harm in seeking the assessment of a mental health provider. For starters, a bigger issue can be uncovered and addressed. But beyond that, you’ve modeled the value of seeking help. There is nothing weak about reaching out to a therapist or counselor to ask for advice.
Just make sure you are asking someone who is qualified, which can be hard at the current moment given the frequency of mental health issues compared with the number of people trained to treat them. When in doubt, ask you pediatrician for a referral, or reach out to an administrator at school.
LH: You spend some time talking about friendships as they loom even larger in this age group and seem to have more impact. What are some of the ways we can teach our teens what healthy friendships look like and what are some of the hallmarks of unhealthy relationships they can watch for. We all know the classic dilemma with teens, if we express our dislike for one of their friends they will become a bestie, but when we can see a problem, how do we convey it to them in a way that they can hear it?
This is such a tough one because kids’ friendships are so important at this age and yet, they seem so tumultuous. The first thing we like to normalize is that it is developmentally appropriate and expected for kids’ friendships to change during this time. And this is true for a number of reasons, one being that they are exploring their identities and individuating from their younger selves, making room for them to be interested in new things and new people. While it’s tempting to hope that their BFF from kindergarten will stay their BFF forever, that’s our dream not necessarily their dream, and we need to make room for things to shift and change.
Secondly, kids bodies change on vastly different timelines so one friend might be really far along in puberty, a foot taller with facial hair and a dropped voice while the other friend still looks like a little kid. One friend might be interested in pursuing a crush or romantic relationship while the other is still playing with legos. That wide range of physical development can effect social changes amongst friends, again developmentally appropriate but no less painful for the friend who feels left behind.
As for friends who we don’t love, the minute we tell kids we don’t love that friend, that’s the moment they become enamored with that kid. Instead, think about bringing the conversations back to your family’s values and your expectations around decision making, rather than the specific kid themselves, your thoughts will still get through loud and clear without you demonizing one particular kid.
About the Authors:
Cara Natterson, MD is a pediatrician and New York Times bestselling author; Vanessa
Kroll Bennett is a puberty educator and writer. Together, they host The Puberty Podcast; run Order of Magnitude, the leading brand dedicated to flipping puberty positive; and they wrote the forthcoming book This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained (Rodale Books, Oct 2023). Cara and Vanessa can be found on Instagram and TikTok @spillingthepubertea. Perhaps their biggest cred, however, is that between them, they parent six teens.
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