Expanded vocabularies, updated wardrobes and the occasional faint traces of body odor. Sound familiar? While this description conjures images of teenagers, few parents naturally or willingly equate these traits to their pre-tweens. Today’s children are growing up in an environment vastly different from the one we cherished as children.
Aware of world and national political events, unable to feel safe at bus stops and entering kindergarten virtually ready for third grade, our young children are older – not chronologically, but mentally and sometimes physically – than their birth certificates indicate.
In a recent survey conducted by the YMCA, when parents of both boys and girls were asked who they thought struggled more with puberty, an overwhelming 71 percent answered girls. Ironically, our sons experience practically the exact same circumstances and scenarios, but are viewed as being or needing to be tough enough to roll with the changes of puberty.
Knowing the Difference
It is difficult for young boys to understand the difference between filling out and growing up. The foreboding milestones of a boy needing to shave, change his sheets or learn to use deodorant daily are tough for both parents and sons to cope with. These rituals all occur as the result of a child’s beginning journey into puberty. While we naturally equate puberty to teens, surprisingly 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds can begin to experience the effects of raging hormones.
Amy Klein, M.A., M.F., helps parents understand a young boy’s rite of passage. “Coping with the physical and emotional changes puberty brings is tough enough without a child’s maturity not matching his ever developing appearance.” Gentlemen as young as age 9 begin exhibiting the tell tale signs of needing anti-perspirant. They become self conscious, wondering how to define the difference between traces of baby fat and blossoming pectorals and biceps.
Feelings of embarrassment, discomfort and confusion surround children and parents alike at this stage. Although a 9-year-old may not be ready to handle impending puberty emotionally, his body may think differently. Helping a child whose body doesn’t match his maturity requires a delicate blend of information, support and patience. It also requires a parent to transform back to the time when you once felt unfamiliar in your own burgeoning skin.
Who Should he Talk To?
Many mothers feel awkward talking to their son about the changes in his body. Interestingly, many fathers are also uncertain how and when to broach “the talk” with their sons.
Feelings of embarrassment and confusion are shared by boys and parents alike. Wondering when or how to initiate a conversation and what information needs discussing causes many parents to avoid talking to their sons about puberty and physical changes.
Enlisting the help of an admired older brother or uncle who is close to your son’s age can provide an initial buffer, but laying an accurate and honest foundation is essential for all of you to help guide the transition from little boy to young man. If your son isn’t comfortable discussing certain aspects of his impending change, offer him No Problem Puberty ($4.95 at rajpublications.com), a resourceful pamphlet for parents wishing to provide young boys clear and concise information.
The Right Information
One of the best ways to help your son through puberty is by empowering him with facts that correct the fiction he may learn on the bus or during lunch period. Understanding that he’s not alone is essential. The security that he’s not the only one to have hair growing in “weird” places or who vacillates between wanting to hold your hand across the street and wanting to exert his independence helps him feel at ease.
Whether he elects to talk to his cousin, read a book or have an enlightening heart-to-heart with you, having accurate and thorough information is crucial. Spiteful friends touting facts like “You sound like a girl because you’re turning into one” can cause fear and deep insecurities in impressionable boys. A YMCA survey revealed that boys ages 8 to 11 are most influenced by their peers.
If your son’s friends speak authoritatively on the experiences of an older brother’s personal changes or escapades, he may take it to heart. If you relate nearly the same story substituting yourself or personal examples, he may not listen with the same enthusiasm. Child Advocate Specialist Dianna Derby has seen the effects of misinformed youths. She cautions “Wherever your son draws his information from, make sure it’s accurate.”
Seeing the Signs
As infants and babies, our children cried as the primary method of expressing their emotions. Ironically, children on the verge of puberty revert back to familiar habits. While we routinely assign episodes of crying or moodiness to teen girls, a young boy’s emotions and feelings are just as fragile. The difference is society’s opinion. The girl who cries at dance class is thought to be expressing her delicate emotions while a boy boo-hooing at a little league game is viewed as a wimp or needing to toughen up.
The stereotype of 8-year-old boys sneaking a peek at an adult magazine is actually quite accurate. They’re curious and keenly aware of the differences in their bodies from girls’. Locking himself in the bathroom, displaying an interest in understanding the opposite sex and mood swings are all signs your son is changing.
If he’s beginning to feel confused or express concern over the start of puberty, What’s Going on Down There: Answers to Questions Boys Find Hard to Ask by Karen Gravelle (Walker and Company) is an open and straight forward book recommended for boys ages 10 to 15 and has a reading level that starts at age 9. The chapters reassure boys that the physical and emotional changes they’re experiencing are completely normal.
Experts like Klein and Derby all echo a similar sentiment. Boys face turbulent and trying years through puberty. Having understanding and educated parents to rely on – and occasionally rebuff – will help everyone along this passage of life.
Gina Roberts Grey is a licensed social worker, freelance writer and mother.