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What to Expect When Puberty Hits

What to Expect in Both


When to expect it: 'Tude can start before any physical changes. For girls, between 7 and 14; for boys, between 9 and 15

What to expect: Brace yourself: Hormones won't just change children's bodies—they'll go straight to their brains, too. Their emotions will go on more roller-coaster rides than the summer crowds at Six Flags. Sensitive. Moody. Intense. Like you when you're PMS'ing, but about 1,000 times uglier. As tweens get older, the influx of hormones triggers abrupt mood swings and irritability. Part of the freak-out comes, too, when tweens see the physical changes their bodies are going through and realize they have no control over them. Elizabeth Donovan, a child mental-health therapist based in Centreville, VA, calls it the "eye-rolling, foot-stomping, you're-so-lame-Mom-and-Dad" stage. Ally calls it hard as hell. "She's a monster," she says of her 12-year-old, fresh off an argument over whether she can "hang out" at a local pizza parlor with her friends—sans adult supervision. Carmen's push for autonomy on everything from how she dresses to whom she befriends turns into almost daily arguments. "I think the peer pressure is there, but the hormones are also conspiring against us," says her mom.

How to deal: Try not to take it personally—she's acting crazy because the hormones are making her crazy, and she's looking for more autonomy because she sees this with her friends and on TV. Besides, you're a safe target; your kid knows you won't reject her, no matter how obnoxious she acts.

It's more important now than ever to set boundaries and establish new rules. "What your kid needs right now is a parent who's supportive and understanding, but also firm and consistent," says Donovan. Stay calm, don't get caught up in the arguments, and give your child a cooldown period so that the two of you can think about what you really want to say and how to say it, she suggests. But by all means, give appropriate consequences for bad behavior. "For example, if she refuses to stop screaming at you, consider taking away a privilege—something she really wants to do," says Donovan. "The key is consistency. If you say you will take away her trip to the mall, then you must do it; otherwise, she'll believe you don't mean what you say, and the negative behavior will increase."

Ally says letting Carmen have her say goes a long way in controlling the blowups. "We do let her vent about how much we're ruining her life," she says. "And even though I really do want to cut her off, I let her talk and I repeat back to her what she says so she sees I'm listening." Another coping mechanism: Laughing as much as she and her husband can when they're alone, says Ally. "We have to—to keep from losing it."

Stinky Underarms + Body Hair

When to expect it: For both boys and girls, beginning at age 9

What to expect: Puberty hormones make hair pop out everywhere: Boys will get it under their arms and on their chests, legs, pubic area, butt, and face; girls will get it under their arms and on their legs and pubic region. And thanks to estrogen or testosterone's effect on a tween's sweat glands, your kid will eventually start smelling like a little construction worker after a hard, hot day even if he's not sweating that much. Talia*, of West Palm Beach, FL, says she'll never forget the first time she noticed that her son, Smith*, then 10, smelled. "I picked him up from basketball, and all of a sudden it was just like, 'Whoa!' Now he wears Extra for Men."

How to handle it: When it comes to girls and shaving, choosing the right time to start is a decision (ideally) you both make together. That said, don't be surprised if she pipes up around fifth grade. There's really nothing wrong with her shaving now (as long as you show her how to do it safely), but it can't hurt to try to encourage her to put it off a year or so. Reminding her that once she starts shaving it's usually a lifelong commitment may just do the trick. Beards on boys are generally the last to develop (think high school)—you've got time on this one!

As for the first time you notice your kid smells, um, different, keep your approach simple: Explain that now that her body is changing, she needs to be vigilant about showering, washing under her arms, and using a deodorant. Just expect your child to forget to use it. "Smith would run out of deodorant and wouldn't tell us because it wasn't important to him. We had a couple of years of him just not using it, or us having to remind him to wash under his arms with soap and use the deodorant. I struggled with him for a long time as far as hygiene goes." But Talia's aunt gave her some wisdom that got her through the funk years: When he wants attention from girls, he'll remember every day, she said. Smith is 14 now—and Talia's aunt was right. He's got his own toiletry bag and an interest in a girl he met at school. Bye-bye, funkmaster. Hello, Romeo.

That night after the pediatrician told us to talk to Mari about The Change, Nick helped Lila take her bath alone so that I could chat with my baby girl as she took a bath in our bathroom. While she splashed around in the bubbles, I told her about her changing body—about boobies and periods, hair and curves, and cramps and PMS. I showed her my sanitary napkins and tampons, and told her about how scared I was when I got my first period, and how I wished I could have talked to my mom when it happened. And I assured her that no question she had on the subject was off-limits with me. She didn't say much—just nodded her head a bit and promised she'd come to me if she had questions. And then she went back to splashing around in her bubbles, happy to be my little girl, if only for a little while longer.

Denene Millner is on Parenting's Mom Squad and the author of 15 books, including What Goes Around: A Hotlanta Novel.