Even though most of us go through it, puberty always feels like a personal attack. Pimples, growth spurts, raging hormones, and emotions — it can be a lot for a young person to handle all at once. Now imagine having to deal with the pitfalls of puberty as millions watch you on television each week. Um, no thank you — but that’s exactly what the (then) kids of ABC’s Modern Family had to deal with. During a panel discussion for the 2020 Television Critics Association winter press tour, Ariel Winter, Sarah Hyland, and Nolan Gould — all cast on Modern Family when they were just kids — talked about the difficulties of going through puberty as public figures.
Gould, who plays Luke Dunphy on the groundbreaking sitcom, shared that he started going through puberty right before the show took a break between seasons. When the cast and crew reassembled, Gould said, per E! News, his voice had started changing.
“I had completely changed…my voice was, like, cracking,” Gould, who is now 21, said on the panel. “It is kind of strange having those years broadcasted to millions of people. It's like your home movies, but for everyone to see.”
However, Gould added, that the Modern Family fanbase was “very supportive” of him during that time. “I got nothing but support from our own family, our TV family, and all our fans out there that it was pretty easy to transition through those years,” he said — but that wasn’t necessarily the case for his co-stars.
Sarah Hyland, now 29, plays Luke’s older sister Haley Dunphy, and noted that going through puberty on television is “probably easier" for boys and "harder for [girls].”
This is likely because cis females go through more noticeable physical changes during this time than their cis male counterparts. Ariel Winter, who plays middle child Alex Dunphy on Modern Family, agreed. “I think it's difficult for any child actor to grow up on TV in front of millions of people because millions of people then think they know you,” Winter, 21, shared. “They think they know you really well, and think they can comment on everything you wear or everything you do or how you grow up and change,” adding that the year she got braces was one of the hardest years for her to be on television.
“...It was a really awkward year for me because I also went through puberty that summer,” she said. “We had episodes with me in braces, and then over the summer once we wrapped, I had other ‘things,’” she said, likely referring to how her figure had developed. “But I still wasn't fully through puberty like Nolan...It was awkward.”
According to child and tween therapist Katie Lear, LPC, RPT, RDT, puberty makes any child feel “very self-conscious and exposed” due to the fact that they’re developing secondary sex characteristics. Going through puberty as a public figure can heighten that negative feeling of exposure, especially for young women.
“Many young women sense they are being evaluated by others, and by the culture at large, in a way that they weren’t just a few months ago,” Lear tells O.school. “Even well-meaning compliments from friends and family can lead to anxiety, because the child understands that others are observing these changes that [they] might prefer to hide.”
Winter experienced this firsthand, stating that it was “really difficult” to grow up in front of viewers who have no issues sharing their opinions “on everything you do” at different stages of your life.
“For children who grow up in the public eye, feelings of low self-confidence can be exacerbated by the higher level of public scrutiny,” Lear explains.
“Imagine if, instead of only your Aunt Susan commenting on your ‘nice figure,’ you had legions of strangers weighing in on whether they felt you were growing up well,” Lear says.
We shiver at the thought.
Luckily, despite having to deal with “keyboard trolls,” as Hyland called those who commented on their bodies, the Modern Family kids had each other to lean on during challenging times.
By the time Hyland joined the cast of Modern Family, she had already gone through puberty, but her health issues resulted in similarly uncomfortable feelings. Hyland referenced Seasons 4 and 5 of Modern Family as being seasons she “cannot stand” because she had “bad Prednisone face” and “gained 30 pounds.”
"And that for me was something that Ariel and I were, I think, going through around the same time, where she got her ‘things’ and I had another thing, but not as fun,” Hyland, who ultimately went through two kidney transplants during her time on the show, said during the panel discussion.
She then gave kudos to Winter, who has embraced her figure on social media and through her fashion choices but has been lambasted in the media for doing so.
“People really love to attack women especially,” Hyland continued, “and I think Ariel is such an amazing woman, and has always been so mature and handles it with such grace and poise, and I think between the two of us, we really have gone and tackled them with all of our spice and wit."
Though it’s disappointing that some Modern Family viewers feel the need to shame the stars for simply growing up and becoming acquainted with their adult selves, it’s comforting to know that they have each learned how to handle criticism.
Before you comment on an actor who is growing up on screen or a younger loved one whose appearance is changing, consider how to actually support pubescent kids.
As Lear points out, these young people are most likely already feeling insecure and anxious about family and friends’ well-meaning compliments, so they don’t need us to be an extra “Aunt Susan,” pointing out their hips, chest, or cracking voice (even if we do so in a positive way).
Instead, as suggested by Bianca Salvetti, MSN, CNS, CPNP on the Children’s Hospital LA blog, we should compliment young adults on their achievements and accomplishments rather than on their physical appearances. And if young people in our lives make negative comments about their bodies or their looks, we can share our own puberty experiences to empathize with them, and to set an example for how to be accepting of oneself.
Props to Winter, Hyland, and Gould for supporting each other and navigating youth in the spotlight together. They have each blossomed into inspiring adults, and we have a feeling that their own Modern Family had a lot to do with that.