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Helping Your Kids Through Puberty

Whoever said "appearances don't count" never shared a home with a child in the throes of puberty. Carefree kids suddenly become bundles of self-consciousness between the ages of about 10 and 15. As the mother of a 12-year-old, I've seen my daughter and her friends agonize over body size, shape, hair, complexion, and clothes. At the same time, their moods and energy levels rise and fall with fluctuating hormone levels.

Fortunately, this stage doesn't last forever. Growth spurts subside, hormones even out, and bodies stop dishing out surprises.

Helping Them Weather Changes
During puberty, kids can grow several inches in one year. Unfortunately, they don't all grow at the same rate. Sixth grade boys and girls come in a wide range of sizes.

The age of sexual attraction varies, too. Kids' friendships may be strained when one becomes interested in the opposite sex before another. Reassure your child that these variations are part of normal maturation and that eventually the extreme developmental differences among peers will diminish.

Here are some tips for helping in the meantime.

Acne
Complexion problems during puberty are common and highly embarrassing. Treat an occasional breakout with over-the-counter remedies. Consult your pediatrician or dermatologist for more stubborn cases. New prescription medications, such as antibiotic wipes, can bring acne under control.

Weight
Instead of running around outdoors, too many of today's kids snack in front of the TV or play computer games. Help your children get more exercise by limiting sedentary activities and encouraging participation in sports and other physical pursuits. And be a good role model. Join them regularly for a swim or a walk.

Eating
Dieting and eating disorders are common problems of puberty, especially among girls. Kids should not restrict their food intake; their bodies need fuel for growth. Just make sure to offer foods that are low-fat and healthy. Don't comment on their bodies' shape--or your own. Instead, emphasize eating for good health without dictating what and how much your child consumes. If you suspect your child has an eating disorder, seek professional help immediately.

Sexuality
Don't assume your kids are getting the facts they need--or as early as they need them--from school hygiene or sex education classes. Some girls start menstruating as early as age nine. Boys tend to enter puberty a little later.

Don't have just one "Big Talk" and try to cover everything. Start early and maintain an ongoing dialogue. Assure your kids you'll answer their questions honestly, and keep your promise. If they don't ask, initiate conversations.

When kids are reluctant to talk, provide them with books written for young adolescents, such as the award-winning "It's Perfectly Normal" by Robie Harris (1994, Candlewick Press). Then follow up with chats about what they read and what they think about it.

A good resource for parents is Planned Parenthood's "All About Sex: A Family Resource on Sex and Sexuality" (1997, Three Rivers Press). Children who are informed in advance about what to expect during puberty will find it easier to cope.

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