Body changes, hormones, feelings — how do you guide your child into their teens?


1. Everything is awkward

Your child is growing. Longer, broader, heavier. Boys will tend to be growing lankier and more angular; girls will be growing curves — in particular, breasts, and broader hips than previously.

Some children may feel growing pains — literally aching as their bones (especially in the arms and legs) grow; they may also be clumsier especially as their body shape changes. This is quite normal.

There will also be hair developing under the arms and at the genital area. Boys might start asking about shaving, if they haven’t already been fascinated by daddy’s shaver.

And last but not least, they will smell more strongly. So encourage more frequent showers as they grow older.

Your child may feel quite awkward so talk to him or her, remind them that this is part of life, and they can and will grow more and fill out (or lose weight); after all, they are “works in progress”. Especially for young girls, encourage them to focus on being active and eating a healthy mixture of food to include plenty of fruits and vegetables. At all costs, avoid the “D” word — diet.

2. There’s going to be zits

Everybody gets (or will get in future) pimples, it’s a good time to start training your child to keep his or her face and body clean — just not scrubbing it dry. Remind them that if they are doing something that makes them sweat, to wipe their faces and tie up their hair so it doesn’t stick to their faces. Early training will help build up good habits.

3. Sex is looming

Don’t laugh or squirm or giggle and mutter “choy!” — children are starting to hear about sex earlier and earlier. Partly it’s your fault: What are you watching on TV or leaving on the chair when you put your book/newspaper down? When headlines scream “Sex Scandal”, it’s normal for a child to ask what that is.

Also, most children are curious about their bodies — little boys particularly, have penises right in front of them and will soon realise that their littler sisters don’t have them (and vice versa). Dr Martha Tara Lee advises: “Children should not become ashamed of their body. If there is confusion, this can present later in life as body image issues or shame surrounding their sexuality.”

She suggests not using “cute” nicknames, such as “pee pee” or “that one” from birth, and instead simply saying “penis” or “vagina”. “Nicknames may imply that the body is something to be hidden or masked.”

Your child’s sex organs will also be developing: Boys’ testes and penises will be growing, their bodies awash with testosterone and they are likely to have erections and nocturnal emissions (whitish liquid from the penis). Girls, thanks to their ovaries starting to release oestrogen, will find that their chests are more sensitive as their breasts grow, and they may have vaginal discharge. Furthermore, there’s menstruation on the horizon.

4. Menstruation. Men. Strew. A. Shun.

This is a big deal and girls know it. So do boys. For goodness’ sake, do remind your child that it is normal — unless he is living in that one Greek monastery where the only females allowed are chickens, he will be around menstruating women all his life.

Menstruation happens when a woman’s ovaries get ready to release an egg cell. Her uterus lining grows thicker to prepare for the egg, and when each month the egg is released, it goes into the uterus. If she is healthy and has sex, the egg may be fertilised and stay there (eventually growing into a baby). Most of the time, it will not — the egg and the thickened layers of uterus lining will be shed in the “blood” that leaves through the vagina.

Dr Lee feels: “This information should be given to both boys and girls. However a girl would need more specific information — just do not shut out your boy if he is curious to learn, too.

“Your reaction to your daughter’s monthly cycle can influence their own attitude towards their period — that it is a curse or a sign she is a healthy growing adult. It would be wonderful to create a celebration or occasion when she has her first period such as a special book about puberty or a treat in a restaurant. This is her coming of age and that is worthy of a celebration just like the many occasions we find to celebrate as Asians.”

To deal with the “blood” (it’s actually blood and some vaginal lining) women use sanitary napkins and tampons — just head to the requisite row in NTUC or other supermarket — as well as menstrual cups and sponges (the Internet can be your friend in this — we assume you have childlocks?). Dr Lee warns: “What is popular is not necessarily the most environmentally friendly or body-safe for starters — such as perfumed sanitary pads.”


5. Feelings — like never before

Teenagers are awash with feelings. And depending on when puberty hits, your child needs to be aware that he or she may start to feel “something”. Maybe he gets erections when he sees certain pictures; maybe she realises that when her clothes are tight some parts of her feel “different”. Again, tell your child this is normal. You may need to tell him or her that it is very private so he or she should keep it to themselves (or just tell you in private), but repeat that it is normal.

Also, he or she may find themselves more emotional — weepier or angrier or more easily frustrated. You need to watch out because your child may not be able to tell you why — shades of the Terrible Twos — but they need your support and care even more as their brains undergo the hormonal storm.

6. Sex

Please, talk with your child about sex. You don’t have to sit the child down for a two-hour diagrammed lecture on it — it’s best to take opportunities as they come up, or as children ask about “aunty X who is getting very fat in the tummy”. Dr Lee says: “Your child will begin asking questions about his body and the bodies of others. He or she will start to notice the differences between men and women, and will begin to verbalise that confusion and seek answers from you.”

Keep it simple for a 5-year-old (“mummy has breasts, daddy doesn’t” or “mummy loves daddy and he puts a baby inside her and it grows in her tummy”). But a 12-year-old needs more discussion about his and her body, and it’s a good time to talk to them about your family values, and his or her rights and responsibilities.

You should have already started teaching him or her about limits. Says Dr Lee: “Teach your children that their private parts are their own and that no one else should touch them, other than parents/specified caregivers who are helping to wash them or wipe them. Also, let them know that other people’s private parts are off-limits, too.”

Introduce the ideas of “good” and “bad” touch: Good touching is by parents/caregivers washing a small child, and hugging and kissing them, something that is wanted and feels okay; bad touching is by anybody else anywhere near the privates and can make the child feel bad. Teach your child to say “don’t do that” and find and inform you, the parent/caregiver.

And please, keep listening to your child, and keep talking to them.

For an overview of puberty, go to or e-mail Dr Martha Tara Lee at if you have questions.

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