Raising teens has changed, and as parents, we need to grow and adapt to the experience our kids are having, not the one we lived decades ago. Dr. Cara Natterson and Vanessa Kroll Bennett provide a guide to a world that can feel unfamiliar and frankly uncomfortable in their wonderful new book, This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained. We sat down to talk with the authors about how puberty has evolved and how we can support our teens on their journey.
Interview with authors of This is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained
G&F: You explain in the book that one of the most important parts of talking with teens is not talking. It is listening to what our kids think and feel and is a safe place to discuss these changes in their lives. This is hard, really hard. What are some tips to help us listen and have a meaningful conversation in a way that helps our teens?
Cara Natterson, MD, and Vanessa Kroll Bennett: This is a really hard one. We get it! But kids tell us repeatedly that, most often, they want their adults to listen to them. Or give them the information they’re looking for and leave it at that. Ideally, conversations become a give-and-take, where adults gauge where kids are on different topics and kids can ask questions, but we know it doesn’t always happen that way. Here are some favorite reminders:
- Don’t lose heart if it doesn’t happen right away because the more you show a kid you are listening (and therefore the less you lecture), the more you show them you respect their viewpoint (and aren’t judging them), the better the chances for meaningful conversation in the future.
- We really believe in the power of humor, particularly when the going is tough. These moments don’t need to be deadly serious; frankly, they’re often better if they’re not. Admit your own discomfort, be a little self-deprecating, and share a funny story about yourself — it shows kids they’re not the only ones riding the awkward boat!
- Most amazingly, moments of connection can be just that, a moment. They won’t necessarily be a 3-hour heart-to-heart, and they may not involve talking at all! They can even be nearly wordless: a hug at the end of a tough day or a wink when you and your kid know you truly get each other in that instant.
G&F: Puberty lasts much longer, and we now know that brain development lasts well into what we once thought of as a firm adulthood. What are the repercussions of this?
One of the most challenging aspects of modern puberty is that many kids appear much older than they are, leaving adults with unrealistic expectations for how a kid should behave in various settings. A 12-year-old who looks 16 is still developmentally 12 and has the decision-making abilities of a tween.
The incongruence between appearance and behavior can be hard for adults to wrap their heads around. In addition, we know so much more about adolescent brains than we did before, particularly the maturation of pathways to the prefrontal cortex (the CEO of the brain), which won’t finish until a kid hits their late 20s (at best!).
So even when they’re done going through puberty and appear to all the world to be fully mature adults, they still have several more years of brain development to go before they can make reliably “adult” decisions with neurological ease.
G&F: Let’s talk about one of the most challenging parts of raising teens: not the physical changes but the emotional ones. You mentioned something I loved: a slammed door is the first sign of puberty. I couldn’t help but laugh as I remember slamming the door on my parents so often at that age. Talk to us a little about why this happens when we just let them walk away and when we try to talk or provide comfort. We blame hormones, but you write that it is so much more than that. So often, we are on the other side of that slammed door, wondering what to do next.
This is definitely an example of do as we say, not as we do! Yes, we can give all this great advice about not engaging with an elevating teen, giving them space and time to cool down, not meeting their anger with anger, and so on. Do we do it successfully ourselves? Hardly! But as with everything in caring for tweens and teens, practice makes better (never perfect).
Here are a few pieces of advice about managing the emotional roller coaster that is puberty and adolescence:
- Everyone gets a do-over, including you and your kid. When you lose it (and you will), apologize for losing it — even if your kid was a total jerk.
- Find a safe place to retreat when your instinct tells you to scream. Go for a walk, pick up a book, text a friend, but back away because nothing good will come of a screaming match.
- Remember that sometimes silence is symptomatic of the hormonal roller coaster, like louder moods. Among some kids, there can be lots and lots of quiet. Find ways to engage with a quiet kid — maybe tapping into their interests — so that you do it on their terms instead of forcing them to meet you on yours.
G&F: Why should we try to let go of our own puberty? What kind of baggage do we bring that can actually hinder us as the parents of teens?
Our own puberty experiences are seared into our brains, literally. And there’s a biological reason for that: through the late 20’s, the brain is under construction, and experiences can be like handprints in wet cement, staying with us long after the cement has dried. Traumatic episodes seal themselves into the brain particularly well, and parts of puberty can feel traumatic!
This neurobiology makes it really hard not to harken back to those formative years when we were raising kids going through a similar process. The temptation is to share and reshare those memories with the kids in our lives. But we urge adults to do that sparingly, for a very specific reason: going through puberty and adolescence is weighty enough for a kid without also carrying your adult’s baggage as well. Our job as caregivers is to help take the load off our kids emotionally, not add to it.
G&F: You talk about not lying even in the most uncomfortable conversations. And it seems obvious, but the temptation to gloss over things or not be fully truthful about tough topics is there. Why is it so important to remain truthful even when we might not feel fully comfortable?
The most important thing we have with our kids is trust. Trust isn’t just one way (although all the adult lecturing of kids about trust might make it seem that way!) They need to trust us as much as we need to trust them, and when trust is lost, it’s really hard to win it back. Lying to a kid undermines trust at the moment when we most need it, so here are some suggestions for things adults can do when they’re tempted to lie:
- If asked about your personal history (because every single kid will ask, so be prepared), if you don’t want to disclose the truth, instead of lying, you can say this: You can ask me any question. I will never be angry that you did, but there are some things I may choose to keep private or may decide this isn’t the right time to share it with you. This is one of those moments.
- If prompted about a subject that you feel totally ill-equipped to answer, you can own that and say: I really appreciate your asking me about this. I need to gather a little more information to answer you properly. Can we circle back on this tomorrow when I am better prepared?
- If a subject comes up that you’re capable of discussing but still feel super uncomfortable about, you can try: I’m so glad you asked. This is a tricky topic, so I’m super nervous, and my palms are sweaty. I will try, but I might mess up, so be patient!
G&F: One of the topics you touch upon that makes this all so difficult is how little our teens want to take our advice. Your book helps us with lots of words and ideas of how we can have some of these awkward but uncomfortable conversations, but then as you say, our kids would rather listen to every other person on the planet than hear from us. What can we do about this?
When our kids make us feel invisible, it is so hurtful. It feels really personal, particularly when, as parents, we do everything we can to care for them, support them, and lift them. But we encourage parents to remember that it’s not just us, but adults in general who are less interesting to kids this age, and there’s a neurological reason behind it.
While their prefrontal cortices aren’t finished maturing until their late 20s, by middle school, their limbic systems (the pleasure-seeking, motivational, risk/reward center of the brain) are fully mature. Even more than that, brain imaging tells us that adults do NOT light up a tween or teen’s limbic system, but guess who does? Their peers! This means that at this stage of development, kids are neurologically hard-wired to find us uninteresting and therefore, less likely to want to hear what we have to say.
That doesn’t mean stop talking or trying because the information permeates over time. But it does mean pick your moments and try not to take it personally!
G&F: Getting teens to sleep is one of the biggest challenges. With 24/7 access to entertainment and friends, they have distractions that can keep them awake through the night. You offer parents some great science and arguments to get kids to sleep, including their growth. What arguments can parents make to get kids to put the phone down and close their eyes, particularly when they keep saying they aren’t tired, and it appears to be true?
Leading with the big winner here: they grow when they sleep. Not at night, when they are in bed, but when they are deeply asleep. Explain that to a kid in your life who’d like to get a couple of extra inches of height, and they’ll be self-motivated to go to bed.
Sleep also resets mood, jumpstart metabolism, and file away memories. We all know how crummy it feels to sleep too little (or fitfully) — few of us are our best selves the next day. We also tend to be hungrier because the hormones regulating satiety don’t reset properly, and we fail to take away all the prior day’s lessons.
If you ever need an argument against pulling an all-nighter and in favor of getting sleep before a big test, explain that the brain cannot store the memory of crammed knowledge when it’s sleep-deprived.
G&F: Let’s talk about our teens’ brains for a moment. You delve into the scenario where we have a meaningful discussion about some of the dangerous situations that teens face, whether drugs or alcohol, and we are talking to a reasonable person. Our teen understands these dangers and agrees to steer away from them. Then they go to a party and do the exact opposite. Many of us might feel that when they were sitting discussing this with us, they were lying, but you explain that is not what happened. As they sat and agreed to certain behaviors, they were not lying about their intentions; how is this?
Part of this is answered above in the question about kids not taking our advice. But I would add this:
Talking to kids about big topics like drugs, alcohol, and sex can make us feel like a broken record that keeps playing when everyone has left the room. While it may not feel like our kids are listening, particularly when they go out at night and do the opposite of what we advised them, the information seeps in over time. Truly!
It’s important to remove the morality here — kids are not terrible people for saying one thing at home and doing another with friends. Instead, we advocate viewing this through the lens of skill building: we can teach kids some skills to take a moment before diving into doing something dumb or dangerous, like counting to 10, texting someone to get a moment to think, and grabbing a glass of water.
Strategies that buy time for the consequential thinking part of their brains (there’s that prefrontal cortex again) to catch up, paving the way for better decision-making. Well, maybe…
G&F: One piece of advice you offer parents that I truly love and need is don’t meet anger with anger. This is so hard in the moment. How can you help parents to step back from the abyss of yelling back at a teen who is yelling at them? It is easy to feel like we are right back to toddlerhood, but this time with a large child having a tantrum. I had a mantra that I repeated to myself from the time they were toddlers, “I am the adult; he is the child. I am the adult; he is the child.”
One of our favorite pieces of advice from Dr. Aliza Pressman is this: “All feelings are welcome; all behaviors are not.” You, as the adult, are allowed to set boundaries around behavior.
Just because they are on this emotional roller coaster prevents them from being unkind or downright cruel. But they might not get a grip in the moment so that you can say — I will take a minute and step away. When you are ready to speak to me with the respect I deserve, I will continue this conversation with you.
G&F: You share that nearly half of all teens have been diagnosed with a mental illness or mental health struggle, and you explain some basics like sleep, nutrition, and a healthy diet that can help combat some of their struggles. One of the most common questions that parents ask is, how do I know when I have a moody teen, undergoing the typical strains of this age from when I have a teen who can use more help and guidance from someone other than a parent? What should parents be looking for?
This is one of the biggest, hardest questions because it can be very tough to tell. Many of the “symptoms” of puberty look, on paper at least, like symptoms of depression or anxiety. From sleep disruption to changes in appetite to mood swings, how do you know when something is part of the expected but tumultuous path through puberty and when a bigger mental health concern is at play?
The best advice we can give is this: if you’re asking the question, there’s no harm in seeking the assessment of a mental health provider. For starters, a bigger issue can be uncovered and addressed. But beyond that, you’ve modeled the value of seeking help. There is nothing weak about contacting a therapist or counselor for advice.
Just make sure you are asking someone qualified, which can be hard now, given the frequency of mental health issues compared with the number of people trained to treat them. When in doubt, ask your pediatrician for a referral or contact an administrator at school.
G&F: You talk about friendships in the book as they loom large in this age group and seem more impactful. How can we teach our teens what healthy friendships look like and what hallmarks of unhealthy relationships they can watch for? We all know the classic dilemma with teens: if we express our dislike for one of their friends, they will become a bestie, but when we see a problem, how do we convey it to them so they can hear it?
This is a tough one because kids’ friendships are so important at this age, yet they seem so tumultuous. The first thing we like to normalize is that it is developmentally appropriate and expected for kids’ friendships to change during this time. This is true for several reasons, one being that they are exploring their identities and individuating from their younger selves, making room for them to be interested in new things and people. While it’s tempting to hope that their BFF from kindergarten will stay their BFF forever, that’s our dream, not necessarily their dream, and we need to make room for things to shift and change.
Secondly, kids’ bodies change on vastly different timelines, so one friend might be far along in puberty, a foot taller with facial hair and a dropped voice, while the other friend still looks like a little kid. One friend might be interested in pursuing a crush or romantic relationship while the other is still playing with legos. That wide range of physical development can affect social changes amongst friends, again developmentally appropriate but no less painful for the friend who feels left behind.
As for friends who we don’t love, the minute we tell kids we don’t love that friend, that’s the moment they become enamored with that kid. Instead, think about bringing the conversations back to your family’s values and expectations around decision-making rather than the specific kid; your thoughts will still get through loud and clear without you demonizing one particular kid.
About the Authors:
Cara Natterson, MD is a pediatrician and New York Times bestselling author; Vanessa
Kroll Bennett is a puberty educator and writer. Together, they host The Puberty Podcast; run Order of Magnitude, the leading brand dedicated to flipping puberty positive, and they wrote the forthcoming book This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained (Rodale Books, Oct 2023). Cara and Vanessa can be found on Instagram and TikTok @spillingthepubertea. Perhaps their biggest cred, however, is that they parent six teens between them.
More Great Reading: