I remember the first time a young person in my care asked me this. We were driving, and she was sitting in the backseat, watching a movie. In a moment that felt out of nowhere, she announced, “What is puberty?” So many things went through my mind. The first one at the time was, “Nothing you need to worry about yet!”
Now I know that is not the best answer, nor is it true! Puberty begins before we see visible changes and can start as young as 8 or 9 years old. She was right on schedule to be asking these important questions. I often think that I would be able to address this so much better now than I did then.
So, what might you say if it comes up for you?
As always, the first step in answering this question is to get clarification. Where is this question coming from? Perhaps your child heard about puberty in health class and is fact-checking, trying to determine whether what they learned is true. Maybe they were told that they are going through puberty, but they don’t feel like they are going through puberty, and they are wondering if it could be true? Or maybe they overheard adults speaking nervously about puberty, and the young person is simply curious. Each of these reasons might bring up different facts and different feelings.
Once you have more information about what they are asking - are they looking for a simple definition? Confirmation of what they have heard before? More information about what to expect from their own body? - you can answer that specific question. For example, a fact might be: “People’s bodies change in a lot of similar ways during puberty, but those changes can happen at different times and feel different for each individual person.”
After sharing a fact, the next thing to share is a feeling. There is a lot of cultural conversation around how awful puberty can be. Adults often reflect on their own adolescence with a mix of embarrassment and discomfort. It can be helpful to acknowledge the discomfort of adolescence and recognize the beauty and excitement that puberty can bring. Puberty can be framed as the time in which a young person becomes an adult. It is the slow transition from childhood to adulthood, and that can be something to celebrate! Even as a teenager’s moods may be challenging to navigate during puberty, those moods are also a mark of a person discovering their own identity and finding their place in the world. When you share your feelings in this conversation, keep in mind that both you and your child may have multiple, complex feelings about what puberty might mean.
The last part of answering the question is to share your value. This can be a tricky one with a question like this! In addressing values, it can be helpful to think about how you would answer the question “What do I want my child to know during this time?” Your answer might touch on self-esteem (“All bodies look different and that is how it is supposed to be!”) or being kind (“Everyone's body grows and changes during puberty, and that can sometimes mean people sound different and embarrassing. In our family, it's important to be supportive of other people who are going through this, and to not make fun of people's voices cracking or changing.”).
And, of course, follow your child’s lead and see how these answers land! This could be the end of the conversation, or the beginning of a new one. By being available to answer these questions as they come up, you are continuing to establish yourself as a resource and as a trusted adult.