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Big changes happen in middle school. Here are some tips for helping your preteen through puberty.

What should I keep in mind?

Puberty is a time of big changes in your preteen’s body and identity. These changes can feel positive to some preteens, and feel awkward, scary, or alarming for others.

Talking with your preteen about what’s going on can make puberty less scary and help them understand that the changes they’re going through are totally normal. Preparing them for changes that come with puberty before they happen will help them know what to expect and worry less.

Puberty is the start of adolescence, which is a longer period of emotional change. Middle schoolers start wanting more independence. They may spend lots of time trying to be like their friends and classmates. They may also spend a lot of energy exploring how they’re unique and independent. But that doesn’t mean that your opinions and values don’t matter: They’re still looking to you for boundaries, guidance, and support, even if it doesn’t always seem like it.

Figure out what your values are when it comes to body image. Puberty can lead to a new set of struggles when it comes to body image. They may worry they’re growing up too fast, or not fast enough. You can reassure your preteen that everyone matures at their own pace.

You can also help them develop a healthy body image — meaning a positive attitude about their body. Think about what matters to you most when it comes to body image. Is it self acceptance and love? Or maybe strength and fitness? Share your beliefs with your preteen.

Your preteen may also start wanting to dress more adult or wear make-up. They may want to shave or wear deodorants or scents. It’s up to you to decide what you think is appropriate at what age. Communicate your values clearly to your preteen, and explain your thinking so they can understand where you’re coming from. They’re more likely to listen if you can have a conversation about values instead of just listing rules.

Your actions matter just as much as your words. When it comes to body image, your preteen hears everything you say about your own body, and learns about food, exercise, and health from you. So think about how you can be a good role model when it comes to having a healthy body image.

Think about who else in their life could help. Some parents feel like they can’t explain stuff to their preteen of another gender. For example, some single dads may not be able to explain how to use a tampon to their daughter. In that case, try to find someone they trust who can talk with them — like relatives or close family friends. And it’s totally normal for these conversations to feel awkward at first. Try and talk with them yourself, and if they need help with something you don’t know enough about, help them find someone who does.

This is the age when your kid should get the HPV vaccine. The HPV vaccine is a series of 3 shots that protect people from HPV-related cancers, like cervical, oral, and genital cancers. It’s recommended at age 11-12 because the vaccine works best if you get it years before you ever have sex. The vaccine won’t encourage your kid to have sex — but it will protect them from cancer in the future. Talk with your kid’s pediatrician or contact your local Planned Parenthood health center to get the HPV vaccine.

How do I talk about puberty with my daughter?

(If your daughter is transgender or gender nonconforming, check out What should I keep in mind if I have a transgender or gender nonconforming child?)

When it comes to talking with your daughter about puberty, it helps to know the facts:

Body changes. Breast growth is usually the first sign of puberty for girls. Girls may develop breast “buds,” or swelling and soreness around the nipples, between the ages of 8 and 13. Breasts will grow slowly over several years. Sometimes one breast grows faster than the other.

Pubic, underarm, and body hair starts developing around this time too.  As her body matures, her vagina will start lubricating (getting wet) when she’s aroused. She also might start having erotic dreams and sexual thoughts and feelings. The most important thing to keep in mind is that everyone develops at a different pace, and everyone’s body is different. And different is normal.

Periods. The first period usually happens between ages 10-16. The name for someone’s first period is “menarche.” Your kid may notice cramps or more vaginal discharge in the weeks or days before their first period, or they may not.

You can prepare your daughter for her first period before it happens. You can teach her how to use pads, tampons, or menstrual cups.  

Pads are usually the easiest thing to use at first. It’s a good idea to get some pads and check them out together. Your daughter may have questions about:

  • which kind of pad to buy

  • how to put a pad in their underwear

  • how long to wear a pad before changing it

  • how to throw out used pads

Give your daughter a few pads to keep in her backpack or locker so she doesn’t have to worry about what to do if her period starts unexpectedly.

You can also help your daughter become more comfortable with her period by helping her learn about the menstrual cycle. Our teen page on periods is a great place to start.

Not sure how to start talking about this stuff? Here are some tips to get the conversation going.

How do I talk about puberty with my son?

(If your son is transgender or gender nonconforming, check out What should I keep in mind if I have a transgender or gender nonconforming child?)

When it comes to talking with your son about puberty, it helps to know the facts:

Body changes. One of the first signs of puberty is when the testicles start growing larger. Pubic hair starts growing, too. These early signs of puberty usually happen between the ages of 9 and 13.

Later, your son will notice his penis growing larger. Body hair will show up on his underarms, face, and/or chest. His voice will get lower. Some boys’ breasts will grow larger for a while, which is called gynecomastia. This is totally normal and it usually goes away once their hormones adjust.

Erections. As his hormones change, he’ll start getting erections more often. It’s common for erections to happen at random times, even when a boy isn’t thinking about sex. These are called spontaneous erections. Your son may worry about having them in public — let him know that these erections will only last a few minutes and that a well-placed jacket or book bag can keep other people from noticing. But sometimes erections happen when he’s having sexual feelings. That’s normal too.

Ejaculation. Boys generally begin producing semen between the ages of 12 and 16. They might have their first ejaculations while masturbating or during a “wet dream” — ejaculation during sleep. Wet dreams are also called nocturnal emissions.

Give your preteen a heads up about wet dreams — ideally before they happen — and let him know that they're normal. Otherwise, they may be embarrassed and not want to tell you.

Not sure how to start talking about this stuff? Here are some tips to get the conversation going.

What should I keep in mind if I have a transgender or gender non-conforming child?

Puberty can be very hard — and sometimes even traumatic — for transgender and gender nonconforming kids. Preteens can experience anxiety and depression when their body changes in ways that don’t line up with their gender identity. This feeling is called gender dysphoria. For example, boys who were assigned female at birth may feel deeply uncomfortable when they start growing breasts, and want to hide or bind them.

Puberty blockers are medicines that stop puberty from happening. While transgender and gender nonconforming people don’t have to change their body in order to transition, puberty blockers can be extremely helpful to some trans or gender nonconforming kids. They work by blocking the hormones — testosterone and estrogen — that lead to changes like testicle/penis growth, facial hair growth, breast growth, and menstruation.  

There are two different kinds of puberty blockers:

  • A flexible rod that goes under the skin of the arm and lasts for 1 year. This is called histrelin acetate.

  • A shot that works for 1, 3, or 4 months at a time called leuprolide acetate.

Anti-androgens are another kind of medicine that’s sometimes prescribed to girls who were assigned male at birth. This medicine blocks and lowers the levels of testosterone in the body.

In order to get started on puberty blockers, your preteen needs to be in the early stages of puberty. Their pediatrician may be able to provide these medicines, an endocrinologist (a doctor who focuses on hormones), or your local Planned Parenthood health center.

Like other preteens, your transgender or gender nonconforming preteen may start dressing or grooming in ways that express their identity. Respecting their choices when it comes to what they want to wear and how they style their hair can help them feel supported and loved.

Supporting their decisions when it comes to using the right pronouns to describe their gender is important for their mental health. Transgender and gender nonconforming preteens who aren’t supported at home are more likely to face mental health problems later in life, and have a higher rate of suicide. Your love and support mean a lot.

How do I build up my preteen’s body image?

During the preteen years, kids often become more conscious about how they look. They may compare themselves to their friends and to celebrities. You may find them spending more and more time grooming or checking themselves out in the mirror. All of that is totally normal, and not all of it is bad news.

It’s normal for preteens to look to their peers, older teens, and celebrities to figure out how they want to look. Part of this is figuring out how to express their interests and identities through their appearance. But obsession with looks could become unhealthy if your preteen starts feeling like they don’t stack up.

Remind your preteen that it’s normal to look different from other people. In fact, everybody is different, and there’s no such thing as a “normal” face or body. It’s also helpful to remind them that their body may be still developing and changing, and not to worry too much if some of their peers look more grown up than they do.

Here are some dos and don’ts when it comes to talking to your preteen about their body:

  • Don’t compare their looks to anyone else’s — even if you’re trying to compliment them.

  • Don’t complain about your own looks in front of them.

  • Do compliment how they look.

  • ...but don’t let that be the only thing you compliment them on.

  • Do focus on health and feeling strong instead of attractiveness.

  • Do remind them that most of the photos and video we see of models and celebrities are heavily edited and not real.

  • Do encourage them to be proud of their ethnic/racial identity, gender identity, what their body is capable of, etc., and look for opportunities to celebrate their community with them.

How do I build up my preteen’s self-esteem?

In middle school, your preteen is figuring out who they are in relation to other people. Their self-esteem is how valuable they feel as a person, and how confident they are in their abilities.

Having a healthy self-esteem helps preteens fight back against peer pressure. People with high self-esteem are more likely to make healthier decisions, have strong goals for themselves, and avoid negative influences.

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

Tell them you love them, and appreciate who they really are.

  • Compliment them. Praise your preteen’s hard work and achievements.

  • Don’t compare them to anyone else. Help your preteen use personal goals, and not somebody else’s achievements, to measure success.

Teach them respect by showing it.

  • Take their problems seriously — even if they seem silly to you. Acknowledge their feelings (“I see this is making you upset”), and help problem solve.

  • Enforce rules in private. Don’t reprimand your preteen in public — especially not in front of their friends. In addition to being bad for their self-esteem, it can create bad feelings between you. Try to enforce rules in private whenever possible.

Help them feel capable.

  • Encourage them to set realistic goals. Low self-esteem can come from putting impossible demands on your kid. Help your preteen set high goals that they can actually reach.

  • Praise them for trying. Let them know that they don’t always have to win or be perfect. Praise them for their hard work and for trying new things.

  • Let them make some decisions. Whenever possible, allow your preteen to make choices — like how to decorate their room, or what after-school activities they want to get involved in.

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

Take pride in your shared heritage.

  • Recognize special cultural traditions, qualities, and values. How kids feel about their race or ethnicity can be an important influence on their self-esteem. 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. Include them in activities that will help them learn about their family history and culture, like learning about important role models.
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