It’s a time of massive changes — physically, emotionally, and relationally. Here’s how to help them prepare.
Written by Lori Reichel, Ph.D. | Reviewed by Hina J. Talib, MD
Puberty is a transformative time for kids. Their bodies develop and mature, and they might experience mood swings, sexual feelings, and personality shifts. These changes can impact a child’s self-esteem, their friendships and family relationships, and how they feel about school, sports, and activities.
Guiding your preteen or teen through puberty might seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to help them understand what’s going on — and how to prepare for the changes they might experience.
What Is Puberty?
Puberty is the developmental period when a kid’s body matures and becomes capable of sexual reproduction. It usually starts around ages 8-10 and lasts for five to seven years.
Since all bodies are different and develop on slightly different timelines, puberty is marked by a series of five stages. These are called the Tanner stages, and they’re based on the growth and development of genitals, body and genital hair, and other sex characteristics.
Why You Should Have the Puberty Talk
Puberty is a years-long rite of passage that brings so much change, and so quickly. It’s often confusing for kids — and it can be confusing for you as a parent or caregiver! While you can’t predict exactly how puberty will impact your child, you’ll want to prepare them for what they’re about to experience.
When to Start Talking About Puberty
Start the conversation early — during their elementary school years — and keep exploring the topic as they grow. This will allow them to get used to the idea of puberty, so they’re more prepared and confident once they begin to experience changes. (They might be more curious and receptive when they’re younger, too.)
Talking About Puberty With Neurodivergent Tweens and Teens
Neurodivergent tweens and teens’ emotional developmental age may differ from their physical developmental age, and they may need more support. As you discuss puberty, it’s best to start simple and add details as they demonstrate understanding. (If they have a medical and/or educational team, those folks can offer suggestions for explaining puberty in a way that’s individualized for your child.)
Neurodivergent kids might also have a harder time expressing their feelings. It might help to download a feeling chart with simple pictures describing a variety of feelings that they can point to during these conversations.
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How to Talk to Your Kids About Puberty
Choose a place where you both feel comfortable and have privacy, like a car ride or a walk, and a time when you’re not rushed or stressed. You can also look for teachable moments on TV or in movies that might spark a conversation.
When you’re explaining biology and physiology, be straightforward, honest, and use correct terminology and anatomical language, not slang.
It’s vital to acknowledge their fluctuating feelings and to create an atmosphere that encourages — and doesn’t shame or downplay — emotional expression. The more you can share your feelings, by saying things like “I feel X when Y” or “I need/want X,” the more the tweens and teens around you will understand what healthy emotional expression sounds like.
Talking to 8-10 Year Olds (Tanner Stage 1)
During these years, it’s important to lay a foundation that you can build on as they develop. You might ask:
- “What are you noticing about some kids at school who seem to be growing older?”
- “What are you looking forward to as you get older?”
- “What are you not looking forward to as you get older?”
Wonder what we mean by the Tanner stages? Learn more about the stages of puberty and what physically happens to your young person’s body during each stage.
Talking to 11-12 Year Olds (Tanner Stage 2)
Your tween or teen might want more space in this stage, and they might not be as open or talkative. It’s vital to keep communicating, though, and to let them know that they can come to you with any questions. Try:
- “How are you feeling about the new changes your body is experiencing?”
- “What hygiene habits can we, as a family, improve upon?”
- “Are the changes you are experiencing aligned with your gender identity and how you feel inside?”
Talking to 12-13 Year Olds (Tanner Stage 3)
Your preteen might want even more privacy at this stage. This is normal—but it’s important to keep checking in with them about their experience. Ask:
- “How can we make sure we support each other’s privacy?”
- “How can we celebrate this transition you are experiencing?”
- “What do you appreciate about your body?”
Talking to 13-14 Year Olds (Tanner Stage 4)
Even if their bedroom door is closed more often, they still need you. Keep reaching out. It might sound more casual at this stage, like:
- “What do you need me to buy at the store? I’m going to the [supermarket, drug store, mall].”
- “Are there any new clubs or other activities you want to become more involved in?”
- “How can our family be healthier physically? Emotionally? Mentally? Socially?”
Talking to 15+ Year Olds (Tanner Stage 5)
Your teen is probably increasingly independent and making more decisions on their own. Try:
- “What do you need to help you be in your room and our home?”
- “What was your high and your low today?”
- “How can we support all of our decision-making while also helping each other grow from mistakes?”
- “What household expectations feel outdated to you?”
Tips for Talking About Puberty With Intersex Youth
Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that don’t neatly fit into the binary categories of “male” and “female.” These might be noticeable at birth or they might not be noticeable till puberty. Someone might be assigned male at birth, for instance, and also develop enlarged breast tissue. Check out BLOOM’s article on puberty and intersex youth for more information.
When to Ask for Support
If you’re concerned that your preteen or teen is developing early, or not developing, talk with your medical professional.
Reach out to a counselor or mental health professional if you’re feeling overwhelmed and having trouble managing your emotions.
If you notice your preteen or teen is acting differently — like experiencing depression, anger, or anxiety — for more than a few days, contact a mental health professional. Your doctor or school counselor can refer you to a therapist or counselor. You can try your local National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter for information on support groups for preteens, teens, and families.
Parenting can leave you feeling overwhelmed and alone, but at BLOOM you have a team behind you. Access Live and On-Demand Workshops led by the experts. Get answers to your most pressing questions through our Ask the Expert Platform. Find your village and share ideas in our Community Group surrounded by fellow parents and caregivers. Or get personalized coaching in 1-on-1 Coaching Sessions tailored to your needs. We know raising tweens and teens is hard – that’s why we created BLOOM to nurture you through the challenges and help you flourish.