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The physical changes of puberty are usually mostly over by the time your teen turns 16, but that doesn’t mean they’re finished growing up. Here are some tips for talking with your teen about their body, going to the doctor, and their body image.

What should I keep in mind?

The body changes that come with puberty usually end in the teen years. Most teens complete puberty by age 16. That means their growth spurts stop, their periods become more regular, and the pitch of their voices stop changing.

Of course, that’s most teens, not all. If your teen is still growing after age 16 or hasn’t passed through other developmental milestones, they may feel ashamed or embarrassed about being different from their classmates and friends. They may worry that there’s something wrong with them. Your teen may also be getting distorted images of what teen bodies look like from TV and movies, because adult actors often play teen characters. You can help them deal with those feelings.

Emotions run high in the high school years, especially when it comes to their feelings about their bodies. They may look and think like adults one moment and like children the next. Keep in mind that even if your teen looks mature, their mind is still growing. In fact, their brain won’t stop developing until they’re well into their 20s.

Figure out what your values are when it comes to body image. Do you want them to believe that all bodies are beautiful? Do you want them to value strength and fitness? Is health the most important factor, above looks or anything else? Defining your own values can help you decide what to say to your teen.

Share your values with your teen. You can help your teen have a positive body image by not adding to the pressure they may feel about fitting in. Don’t compare them to their peers. Keep conversations with them about their body as private as you can. Whether they are a late or early bloomer, reassure them that it’s normal for kids to grow at different rates. If you had a similar experience growing up, sharing that with them can help them feel more at ease. You and your teen may talk with their doctor together for reassurance that their growth is normal. Share your ideas about body image, exercise, health, and beauty with them.

Remember that no matter what you say to them, your actions matter too. By the time your teen gets to high school, they’ll be pretty familiar with the way you talk about your body, and your relationship to food, exercise, and other parts of your health. As they get older, they may view their own bodies in similar ways. Think about how you can model the type of attitude and behavior you want your teen to adopt.

How do I talk to my teen about puberty?

The most important thing your teen needs to know is that different is normal. They may be self-conscious about how their body looks compared to other people around them, or celebrities they see on TV, in movies, or on social media. Remind them that there’s no such thing as “normal” when it comes to how bodies look. Use examples you see in the media to start conversations about body image. For example, if you see that a character in a show is unhappy with the way they look, ask your teen why the character might feel that way. Small questions can lead to rich conversations that will help you understand how your teen is feeling. Remind your teen that it’s normal for breasts, penises, nipples, labia (lips of the vulva), testicles, and clitorises to come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. They need to know that menstruation, sexual thoughts and feelings, wet dreams, orgasms during sleep, and masturbation are normal, too.

How do I help my teen have a positive body image?

Body image is about the feelings you get when you think about your body or see it in the mirror, and how important you think it is. Having a healthy body image means enjoying the way your body makes you feel, appreciating its appearance, and understanding that the way you look doesn’t make you a good or bad person.

Right now your teen may have a lot of feelings about their appearance. You probably know that a healthy body image is important for their happiness. But did you know that it’s also important for their health? Teens with higher self-esteem are more likely to wait until they’re older and more ready to have sex, and body image is an important part of self-esteem.

Here are things you can do to encourage a positive body image:

  • Don’t compare your teen’s looks to anyone else’s — even if you’re saying your teen looks better. That sends the message that it’s okay to compare themselves to other people.

  • Try not to complain about your own looks in front of them.

  • Compliment how they look — but don’t let that be the only thing you compliment them about.

  • Congratulate them on hard work, strength, kindness, or other good qualities you want them to be proud of.

  • When you talk about diet or exercise, focus on health instead of attractiveness.

  • Remind them that most of the images we see of models and celebrities are heavily edited and not real.

  • Take pride in your heritage. How your teen feels about their race or ethnicity can be an important influence on their self-esteem and body image. For example, research shows that young teens who are proud of being African American or Latino tend to feel good about themselves. Help them find good role models. Recognize special cultural traditions, qualities, and values. Involve them in activities that’ll help them learn about their family history and culture.

How do I build up my teen’s self-esteem and confidence?

Teens with high self-esteem feel good about themselves and have confidence in their abilities. They have concrete goals, and they feel satisfaction in their relationships with others. They’re also less likely to give in to pressure to have sex before they’re ready.

Here are some ways you can encourage healthy self-esteem in your teen:

  • Compliment them. Acknowledge your teen’s talents and achievements and praise them.

  • Don’t compare them to anyone else. Teach your teen to use personal goals, not somebody else’s behavior, to measure success.

  • Take their problems seriously. It’s a good thing when your teen comes to you to talk about a problem. Remember that problems that seem small or silly to us may be very important to someone in high school. Acknowledge their feelings (“I see this is making you upset”), and help with problem solving.

  • Praise them for trying. Remind them that they don’t always have to win or be perfect. Encourage them to take pride and pleasure in the activity itself, and praise them for trying new stuff.

  • Let them make their own decisions. Teens feel better about themselves when they’re able to make decisions that affect their lives. If they have a hard time making decisions, talk them through their options, and tell them how you make decisions.

  • Give them chores. Helping out around the house can help them feel useful, understand responsibility, and see how their behavior affects others.

  • Encourage them to set realistic goals. Low self-esteem can come from putting impossible demands on yourself. Help your teen set high goals, but not so high that they’re unreachable.

  • Enforce rules in private. Reprimanding your teen in public — especially in front of their friends — can be humiliating and hurtful. It can lower self-esteem and create bad feelings. So try to enforce rules in private whenever possible.

  • Take pride in your shared heritage. How teens feel about their race or ethnicity can be an important influence on their self-esteem. For example, research shows that young teens who are proud of being African American or Latino tend to feel good about themselves and have higher levels of self-esteem. Help your teen appreciate the positive qualities of their ethnic or racial identities. Talk with them about role models and special cultural traditions, qualities, and values. Include them in activities that will help them learn about their family history and culture.

How do I talk to my teen about going to the doctor?

Now’s the time for your teen to start having one-on-one conversations with their doctor. That means leaving the room for at least part of their visit. There are 2 reasons why that’s a good idea: First, learning to talk with a doctor or nurse about their health is an important life skill. Secondly, they may need some privacy to ask their doctor questions that they may be too embarrassed to ask with anyone else in the room.

Even if you and your teen have lots of conversations about their sexual health, there still may be things they don’t want you to hear. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re out there doing stuff you wouldn’t approve of. And you can always ask them what they talked about with the doctor — but don’t pressure them into telling you. Respecting their privacy in the exam room strengthens the message that doctors and nurses are good sources of health information.

Before their appointment, sit down with them and make a list of things to talk about with the doctor. As they get older, encourage them to do that on their own. Talk with them about how to make an appointment with a doctor, what health insurance is and what kind they have, and how and when to visit doctors or nurses.  

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