Usually, boys start puberty around 9 or 10 years of age. The physical changes occur between ages 10-16 (Dowshen, 2015) starting with growth spurts of the arms, legs, hands, and feet. Your son will gain weight and muscle too. His voice will deepen, and he will grow facial and underarm hair, and more hair in the pubic area. His genitals will develop and change in size. Girls start puberty sometime between the ages of 8 and 13 years of age. The first signs are usually breast development but can be growth of pubic hair. 1 to 2 years later a noticeable growth spurt will occur. Her body will begin to build up fat around her hips and thighs to form the contours of a woman. Her arms, legs, hands, and feet will also get larger. The peak of puberty for a girl is when she starts menstruating between the ages of 9-16 (Dowshen, 2015 & Gavin, 2019).
You’re the parent. You are probably the best person to support your child through puberty because you know your child the best. You know how he or she learns the best. You have already taught your child some skills. It may have been a step-by-step direction on how to wash their hands or a visual support to teach the routine for getting ready for bed or a video on how to say hi to a friend when meeting. For the stage of puberty, try to think about the skills that need to be taught using the same strategies. For example, you can use a social narrative to teach your daughter to wear a bra or to teach her about private and public spaces. A step-by-step direction for your son to learn to shave his face or put on deodorant. Open your mind to applying what you know to a new skill. Think of puberty as just another lesson to teach your son or daughter in life. You can make a positive difference in your child’s teen years by having a plan on how to teach the strategies. Social narratives mentioned is this article can be found at https://go.iu.edu/4awh.
When Younger: Teach
The time to get prepared is when your child is young. Teach your child about private spaces. The only private space is in his/her bedroom with the door closed. Have everyone in the family make a sign for their door that says, “please knock and wait until told to come in" (i.e., social narrative titled, Public and Private Spaces). Then practice so everyone in the family learns how to knock on the door and wait or knows what to say when others knock on their bedroom door.
Teach the medical terms for your child’s genitals. Remember the vocabulary you teach will be the words they use forever. Start with penis, scrotum, vulva, and breasts.
Having on-going conversations with your child about how their bodies will change during puberty is important. A good time to talk is during bath time or while traveling in the car. If your child is talkative and asks a million questions, try to answer all of them with short answers directly related to what is being asked. Some of the questions may include: where do babies come from or do boy and girl genitals look the same? If you don’t know the answer, say let’s look up the information together. This is not one conversation and you’re done; instead think of it as 7-9 years of many conversations. It is great if you’re always open to talking and answering your child’s questions.
During Puberty: Teach
When you first see the signs of puberty, tell the teens teachers and the school nurse. Make a plan for how to support your teen so the plan is similar at home and school.
Your teen may need to know the why’s, how’s, and when everything is going to happen. Try to use social narratives, Starting Puberty for Boys or Starting Puberty for Girls, or read a book or look at reliable websites on puberty together.
Underarm hair will grow for both boys and girls. It is common for girls to shave their armpits and not for boys. However, this is a choice for both boys and girls. Use the social narrative, Shaving Armpits, Do You Want To? as a guide.
Both boys and girls sweat glands will increase. Be honest with your teen that their body odor smells and the importance of washing their armpits with soap and water daily so they will smell good, and their friends and family will want to be around them. In addition, try many different types of deodorants to know the scent and how it feels best for your teen. Let your teen decide on the best deodorant smell for them. Some teens with poor motor abilities may need to know the exact place to put the deodorant. Try drawing an outline with a washable crayon to show the exact spot. Share the social narrative, Wearing Deodorant, with your teen to encourage them to play an active role in putting on deodorant to smell better and reduce sweat.
Girls will start to wear bras (i.e., social narrative titled, Wearing a Bra). Bras come in many colors and styles. It is helpful to start with a sports bra. Try ironing on a favorite cartoon character and/or dye the bra your daughters favorite color to encourage her to wear it daily.
Both boys and girls shave. Boys shave their faces and girls shave their legs. Use step-by-step directions on how to shave for both men and women (i.e., Teaching a Young Man to Shave and Teaching a Young Woman to Shave).
Most girls will start menstruating during puberty. As her mom, model the steps in wearing and changing a pad. Take photos of each of the steps to hang in the bathroom. Show your daughter there are many different types of thickness of pads from thin for a light flow to maxi for a heavier flow or can be used at night. Put dots on the packages for different thicknesses so she will know when to use which one or refer to the color of the wrapper if different. Make a schedule of when she will change her pad. Be sure to align it with her school schedule of changing classes. It may be helpful to mark her underwear with a permanent marker to show exactly where she should put the pad. Use the social narrative, Plan for When I Have My Period, to guide your daughter.
If your child has limited communication or is unaware of the changes occurring in their body; then, you must be the detective by continuing to be aware of how the body is changing. Instead of the ‘why’s’ this is happening to their body, steps we are going to follow to know what to do when something happens. For example, the steps for changing a pad and how to dispose of the old one during menstruation time.
Lastly, know that when the physical body is changing, your teens hormones are changing too. This could mean increased anxiety, aggression, withdrawal, or migraines. Talk with your pediatrician about medication changes. Know that your teen may need strategies to calm them from feeling of anger and agitation when things don’t go their way. Try using the calming strategies you have used for sensory overload at younger ages like organizing cars, relaxation exercises, listening to music, and/or sitting in a quiet room. Also, use explicit rules with concrete scenarios for your teen to follow. Try to track the behavior (e.g., sleeping habits, sudden changes, when aggressive) during the month to see if there are any patterns to share with the physician. This may take time to figure out the best solution. Be patient, the behavior will level out with support. Also, be sure to have your own support system in place, to take care of you.
• AMAZE. (2021). Puberty. Amaze.org. https://amaze.org/educators-2/ and https://amaze.org/parents/
• Dowshen, S. (2015). Understanding puberty. Nemours Kids Health. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/understanding-puberty.html#catsexual-health
• Gavin, M.L. (2019). Growth and your 13- to 18-year-old. Nemours Kids Health. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/growth-13-to-18.html#catskin-stuff
• Go Ask Alice! (2015, June). Men’s sexual health: Tired of waiting for puberty. goaskalice.columbia.edu. https://goaskalice.columbia.edu/answered-questions/tired-waiting-puberty
• Hartman, D. & Suggs, M.A. (2015). The growing up book for boys: What boys on the autism spectrum need to know! Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
• Hartman, D. & Suggs, M.A. (2015). The growing up book for girls: What girls on the autism spectrum need to know! Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
• Crissy, P. (2005) Personal hygiene? What’s that got to do with me? Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
• Natterson, C. & Masse, J. (2013). The care and keeping of you 2: The body book for older girls. Middleton, Wisconsin: American Girl.
• Schaefer, V. & Masse, J. (2012) The care and keeping of you: The body book for younger girls. Revised edition. Middleton, Wisconsin: American Girl.
• Wrobel, M. (2017). Taking care of myself2: For teenagers and young adults with ASD. Arlington, Texas: Future Horizons, Inc.
Social narratives referenced in this article can be found at https://go.iu.edu/4awh.
Dubie, M. (2021). Let’s plan for puberty! Retrieved from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/irca/articles/lets-plan-for-puberty.html.