It’s normal to wonder how your relationship with your child will change during the transitions of puberty. Although the specifics are unique to each family, the parent-child relationship often changes when kids enter adolescence. We reached out to parents in our network, and to O.school readers via social media, to ask how their relationships with their kids changed during puberty.
Read on for some parents’ perspectives on the challenges and joys of parenting adolescents.
1. The way you relate to your child may shift as their body changes
There’s a wide range when it comes to the age at which someone will reach milestones like increased height or the development of body hair, but most kids will begin to experience the hormonal changes that initiate puberty before they hit their teens — typically around 9 or 10 for girls, and 10 or 11 for boys. (1) As your child matures physically, you may notice a shift in the way you relate to each other.
Lori G, a lawyer and mom of two boys, was close to her sons when they were little, but noticed that they become more distant as they entered puberty. “They created physical distance from me,” Lori tells O.school. She also noticed that she felt more distance as their identity as boys developed and they began to behave in more stereotypically “masculine” ways: “their gender ‘otherness’ became more front and center.”
Hillary Rockwell, a freelance writer and mom to a 13-year-old son, was surprised at the speed of physical changes during puberty: “I could swear that my son sprouted leg hair and changed from an alto to baritone overnight. I used to jokingly say, ‘Hey! How'd you get so tall?’ but that question soon came out in earnest. It seemed like the unfurling of full butterfly wings after waiting endless days for a chrysalis to hatch.”
2. You may connect with them on a different emotional level
Pediatrician and bestselling author Dr. Cara Natterson tells O.school that the emotional changes of puberty often come before the physical changes. “They may not have many obvious physical signs at first, but their moods definitely begin to shift. And the truth is, most kids don’t like how moodiness feels.” She encourages parents who notice their child experiencing mood fluctuations to take the opportunity to start a conversation about other changes they may expect.
Alison Huff, a freelance writer and editor, tells O.school that “my first daughter reached puberty at about 12 1/2 years old. She basically didn’t come out of her room again until she was 14, except to go to school or to begrudgingly eat dinner with the rest of us. I let her be, as much as I could. I gave her the space she needed but still sought the opportunity to check in with her whenever those moments presented themselves.”
Although puberty was “a turbulent time” for Alison’s relationship with her daughters, she says, “Today, I am happy to report that my relationship with both of my daughters is honestly everything I could have ever hoped for as a parent. If you’re a parent who is struggling with the way your parent-child relationship is changing as your child enters puberty, I think it’s important to remind yourself — daily, if need be — that this phase, like most others, is temporary.”
3. You’ll notice your child prioritizing what others think of them
For many kids, friendship and relationships with peers take on greater importance during adolescence. (2) Kids may be more sensitive to what others think of them and more likely to be influenced by others. (3) For some parents, responding to their kids’ changing social relationships means striking a balance between being present and giving them space to cultivate their own identity.
Rockwell tells O.school, “One thing that has definitely changed is my son's awareness of how he's viewed by peers, and what it means to be embarrassed. I'm under strict orders to wait until the car door is fully closed before saying, ‘Hi, buddy!’ after picking him up at school. Although he tries to be subtle, he shrugs off my arm around his shoulders when we're out in public. At home, his guard drops and he's more affectionate, but as he grows up and starts to truly embrace his identity as a separate person, I know the physical distance between mom and son will invariably grow.”
Elaine D., a bank executive, was concerned about how her child’s fashion choices would impact how they were treated by others, but ultimately realized that letting them express themselves was an important part of their development. “I was so upset when my child dyed their hair green because I was afraid they would be treated poorly and shamed by others,” she says. “I failed to understand, however, that this is their way of expressing their own uniqueness and independence, the very 2 characteristics that I worked so hard to instill in them!”
4. You may need to communicate with your kids even more
Research suggests that open communication between parents and children can have a positive impact on kids’ emotional and social wellbeing, academic performance, and choices around substance use and sexual activity. (4; 5) Kids whose parents set clear expectations and communicate their values in a way that emphasizes care and connection may be less likely to engage in risky drinking and drug use and to delay sexual activity and make safer choices when they do start having sex. (4; 5)
Andrea B., an MA candidate in marriage and family therapy and mom of two boys, found that, while her son initially distanced himself from her when he started puberty, a problematic friendship created an opening for conversation: “When [my older son] started hanging out with a kid who had more experience with drugs, alcohol, and sex, we started having more frank conversations about all of those things.” Andrea says that her son quickly decided that this friendship wasn’t fulfilling and credits their discussions with helping him to figure out his own values.
Dominic Castleberry, a father of four and HR manager, found that open conversation was key to helping him feel connected to his kids: “I and my [older] son got closer and more open. The most major change in the house is that we began talking more openly about sex.”
Lori G. tailored her approach to keep the lines of communication open with her two boys: “They still needed close parenting and supervision but I had to be careful how I approached them and spoke to them. They were touchy and reactive. I tried to study their reactions so I knew how to approach them without them shutting down.”
How to support your child
Each family is unique, and every parent has their own set of priorities and values when it comes to relating to their kids. Whatever your individual family dynamic, showing consistent love and support as your child experiences the changes of puberty is the best way to help them navigate the ups and downs of adolescence.
Dr. Natterson emphasizes the importance of honesty in your relationship with your child: “Some kids will ask questions because they’re genuinely worried about something that’s happening to their body or a situation faced by a friend. Always be honest with your answers, including saying, “I don’t know” when you don’t know… but then follow up with someone who does know in order to get the best answer or advice.”
Dr. Natterson encourages parents to be empathetic without making assumptions, telling O.school that parents may want to “acknowledge that this stage of life can be tough, but try to stay away from the phrase ‘I know how you feel.’ You might think you know how they feel, but this isn’t your puberty, it’s theirs. So often, kids just want to be able to express their feelings.” She also recommends respecting kids’ privacy by avoiding sharing information they’ve told you in confidence, unless they’re experiencing a physical or mental health problem that might require support from a healthcare professional.
Rockwell offers this advice to other parents of kids going through puberty: “[Let] them know they can always come to you about anything, any time. You won't be annoyed, disgusted, or mocking in response to their questions or thoughts. You won't belittle them. You are an open door, always. You are a safe space. Once you've communicated that, follow it up with action. When they know you are trustworthy, they will trust you with their questions and thoughts, and you can help guide them through life.”
Andrea also emphasizes the importance of trust and acceptance: “Don’t use fear of what could happen to your child prevent you from connecting with them, even when it is incredibly uncomfortable to do so. It is in those moments of connection where you allow the child to be ok as they are.”
Elaine D. shares her experience that “any decision or reaction made from a position of fear was ultimately the wrong one,” and encourages parents to try to see things from their kids’ perspective: “As stormy as puberty is for you it is as bad or harder for them. They are learning how to manage themselves and the world around them with all of the pressures associated with school, parents, [and] social [media].”
5 helpful resources navigating parenting during your child’s puberty
Parenting kids through puberty can be a challenge — here are a few resources that can help you to navigate the transition.
- Planned Parenthood has a series of guides for parents that offers advice and information on talking to kids of all ages about bodies, identity, sexuality, reproduction, safety, relationships, and more.
- The University of Washington has a list of resources geared towards parents, as well as communication tips and information about puberty, peer pressure, online safety, media literacy, and other topics.
- For parents of kids with disabilities, the University of Wisconsin offers a guide with information, communication tips, and links to other resources.
- Common Sense Media has a list of books about puberty aimed at kids from early childhood through the teen years.
- The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine has a list of mental health resources for teens, including online resources, helplines, supportive services, advocacy groups, and more.
The bottom line
Puberty can be exciting and challenging for kids and parents alike. Every child is unique, and there’s a wide range when it comes to what’s “normal” for kids’ physical, social, and emotional development. Moodiness in adolescence is totally normal, but many mood disorders like depression and anxiety first show up during the preteen and teen years. (6) If you have a concern about your child’s behavior or development, it’s a good idea to reach out to a healthcare or mental health professional for support.