It’s not news that the teenage years are often a challenging time for all concerned. Physical and emotional changes are happening at a sometimes bewildering speed, and this coincides with the exposure to an ever widening array of ideas, choices and pressures.
Puberty, the physical changes that adolescents experience, starts gradually, usually at the age of about 11 in girls and 13 in boys. The hormonal changes will have been happening slowly over several years before the more obvious physical changes; the first signs are usually moodiness and a general restlessness or irritability. Girls tend to start these changes younger than boys, but the boys will catch up before long.
In girls, puberty will bring the onset of menstruation (periods) and the growth of under-arm, body and pubic hair. Boys will notice their voices becoming gradually deeper, and they will develop facial, body and pubic hair. They’ll start to experience erections and wet dreams.
While all this is going on, both boys and girls will generally undergo significant growth spurts and changes to their outward appearances. Hormonal changes may also be responsible for skin problems such as acne.
Your role as their parent
Your child may not only be demonstrating personality and physical changes, but they’ll be showing other signs of growing up, such as an interest in the opposite sex (or, possibly, an uncertainty about their sexual feelings for others).
Some children will be able to talk fairly openly about their feelings, if not with you then with friends. Others will find this difficult. Sex education in schools can be varied, and the large amount of accessible material on the internet can be more confusing than helpful.
The age of consent for sex, both heterosexual and homosexual, in England, Scotland and Wales is 16, and in Northern Ireland it’s 17. It’s illegal to have sex if either partner is under age, regardless of consent. Having sex earlier than this puts children at greater risk of pregnancy and health problems, so access to support and guidance is essential.
If you feel unable to approach your child, and if the school support isn’t sufficient, then they should be encouraged to talk to their GP or to attend a family planning clinic where they can receive advice, education and practical help. FYI: GPs and clinics don’t have to inform parents when dispensing contraception as long as they feel that the young person is competent to understand the circumstances. Emergency contraception, however, is only available from pharmacies for those aged 16 or older.
As with so many of life’s situations, good channels of communication are vital. It’s arguably too late to try and develop these once your child is entering puberty, so start at an early age. Talk about the body, its changes, and about feelings, both theirs and yours. Conversations about how and when (and why) to say “no” will stand a child or young person in good stead in any number of situations.