Looking at any seventh-grade class picture, it can be hard to believe that the (mostly) smiling faces all belong to children the same age. The boy on the far left looks as if he’s still in grade school, while the girl standing next to him could pass for a highschool senior. Several girls tower above the rest of the students. Most of the boys are still smooth-cheeked, but a few already have the faint beginnings of sideburns and mustaches. Pimples and other evidence of the dreaded acne can be seen in many.
These differences do not go unnoticed by the teenagers themselves. The growth spurt of puberty shifts into high gear during the early to middle teens, a time when youngsters are striving for approval from their peers. They are constantly comparing themselves to other kids to gauge where they stand on the scales of physical development and attractiveness.
Small wonder, then, that adolescents can seem obsessed with their changing bodies and faces, which inspire a combination of fascination and anxiety. They critique themselves in the bathroom mirror with the ruthlessness of an art critic studying a painting, acutely sensitive to imperfections both real and imagined. As a parent, you may find yourself fielding some disarmingly frank questions:
“Doesn’t my nose look funny to you? I think there’s something wrong with it.”
“Mom, am I gonna be tall like Dad, or a shrimp like you?”
“I am, like, so ugly! No boy is ever gonna want to go out with me . . .”
“Some kids want their parents to look at everything,” observes Dr. Renée Jenkins of Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. “Mom and Dad may see this as an attention-getting ploy, but teenagers need a lot of reassurance that they are normal. It’s important to treat their concerns seriously, look when they ask you to look and patiently answer their questions.”
Youngsters’ fears about puberty usually stem from not knowing what to expect. It’s up to parents to educate them—or, if you’re not comfortable having this conversation, to find someone who is, like your pediatrician, an aunt or uncle, a mature older cousin and so on. This may require brushing up on the fundamentals of adolescent physical development. However not all adolescents prance around the house, calling attention to each and every new physical development. Some are deeply embarrassed by these changes. They go to great lengths to conceal their maturing bodies by wearing baggy clothes and adopting a stooped posture.
As for how to initiate a discussion with a self-conscious or reticent teenager, Dr. Marianne Felice suggests casually asking questions, the same technique she uses to draw out shy youngsters during office visits.“I might ask a girl, ‘Have you noticed that one of your breasts is slightly larger than the other?’ ” says Dr. Felice, who is a pediatrician at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester. The young patient will usually nod. “Next I’ll ask, ‘Have you ever compared yourself to other girls and wondered if that’s normal?’ Then I reassure them that it is very common. And from there I go on to talk about normal progression and what they can expect. ‘In about six months to two years, you’re probably going to start menstruating. Do you know what it means to have your period?’ ”