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October 25, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 91

My Kid Hates Being A Late Bloomer. How Can I Help?

Episode 91

How can we support kids who feel uncomfortable about the timing of puberty? A parent writes in asking what to say to a late bloomer who feels out of step with her peers. Dr. Lisa unpacks the research on what it means to reach puberty early – or late – and how this differs depending on gender. Reena and Dr. Lisa address whether there’s such a thing as perfectly timed puberty, and how to talk about the changes that come with puberty in ways that won’t send tweens and teens running for the hills.

October 25, 2022 | 33 min

Transcript | My Kid Hates Being A Late Bloomer. How Can I Help?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 91: My Kid Hates Being A Late Bloomer. How Can I Help?

 

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.

 

REENA: So I guess the one thing kids probably did not miss from the pandemic and learning at home is sex ed classes. 

 

LISA: Health as they call it. 

 

REENA: Oh is that what they call it now? Okay.

 

LISA: Health or sex ed. It depends on the school but man Reena, I, they’re often so cringy. They’re so cringy.

 

REENA: In Florida I called it human growth and development. That was the fancy term in the APs and IBs. 

 

LISA: Well, and like, of course it’s really important to teach and of course it’s really important for kids to get that information because not all families are covering it or talk about it comfortably, but don’t you just have vivid memories of how awkward it felt to be in that class?

 

REENA: Yeah. But my mom swears I was so excited to go. 

 

LISA: Oh yeah?

 

REENA: And I think she was very relieved not to have to have that talk with me and have somebody else do it. But you know, one thing we don’t talk about is what if your kid’s a late bloomer. You get all this education, people are moving a little bit faster than you are, and this letter stood out to us in our endbox. ‘Dear Dr. Lisa and Reena, I’m parenting a 13-year-old girl who’s lagging slightly in terms of puberty. She herself is painfully aware of this, as there are lots of well-meaning assignments about puberty at school. She’s feeling very hopeless and feeling very different from her peers, and unable to wear the kinds of clothes that they do, which often seem to need breast development to stay in place. There’s part of me that does question a bit whether these are the kind of clothes I want my 13-year-old to be wearing. I’m in Australia, we’re entering our summer, and it’s very hard to see how painful it is for her to wear her swimsuit around others at the moment. How can I support her through this time, in a way that’s most useful for her psychological development now and also in the future?’ Wow, the swimsuit issue. Ask Lisa, the swimsuit issue. Not a topic I thought we would get into. 

 

LISA: The swimsuit issue, right. Oh man but Reena, listening to this letter, doesn’t it just sort of hurt your own 13-year-old heart? 

 

REENA: Yeah. 

 

LISA: I mean, I have such vivid memories of feeling like I was not on the right timing. Did you feel well timed puberty-wise or not so much?

 

REENA: Well I just felt, you know, there’s a bit of weight gain sometimes for girls around puberty, and I did not want to be anywhere near a bikini then. Just self-esteem issues, even if you’re not a perfect size in your mind, I think we all have our own body images, so I just, it brings this wave of emotion as I’m reading this, right? From childhood. 

 

LISA: Yes it does. Like you really feel it. You really feel it. Okay, so there’s so much, there’s so much here. Where do you want to start? 

 

REENA: Well how common is this, I guess, for girls of this age to feel this way? Is this a one-off? 

 

LISA: I think it’s hugely common. I think if you, you know, kind of stopped people on the street and said, did puberty happen for you early, late, or perfectly timed, I have a feeling that no one would say, oh it was perfectly timed. Like it absolutely showed up at exactly, you know, when I wanted it to. I think people would say, oh man, I was way too early or oh man, I was way too late. So I think this too late feeling is very common and I think part of the challenge for girls in particular is there’s a very public aspect of their puberty, right? People can see breast development, and so that is very uncomfortable for a lot of girls, because puberty, it’s so weird. Right? Like puberty is just so weird and made that much weirder when there’s sort of a public side of it, that people can measure it and evaluate and see how things are coming along. Which like, why would you want anybody to be able to see that? You know, so I think it’s pretty common, it’s, I think it’s why both you and I have this. Like I can feel myself cringing, my shoulders are coming up towards my ears just thinking about this time of life. 

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: And I will say, on the bathing suit thing, oh man, I feel this so deeply. And you’ve got a 10-year-old daughter, and I don’t know if you’ve run into this. Like when you start to try to go shopping for bathing suits for 10, 11, 12, 13-year-old girls, it’s not that fun anymore. Have you had this problem?

 

REENA: You know, I haven’t because I buy the swimsuit in August for the next season, so she doesn’t have a choice. 

 

LISA: Oh that’s smart. 

 

REENA: But we’re entering. I buy the sales in August when they’re all reduced for next season. But you know, I’m entering that point where she really has an opinion on her clothes now. 

 

LISA: It is hard, and I will tell you, I remember, I think it was with my older daughter. Yeah, trying to find bathing suits that felt appropriate, and what this parent is describing is often once you get into these tween ages, it’s a lot of bikinis, which parents may or may not want for their kids, and it’s bikinis where the thing covering the breast is like a triangle of fabric. 

 

REENA: Oh my gosh.

 

LISA: And it feels totally weird to put, you know, two triangles on what is essentially the boy torso of your daughter. Like there’s nothing there. And it feels like it’s very sexualizing, and I remember we were at Target, like just going through every option we could find to get to something that we could agree on. I will tell you, we’re not sponsored by them, I’m not a paid promoter, Athleta Girl solves the problem.

 

REENA: And it’s at Target?

 

LISA: No, Athleta Girl is under Athleta itself. 

 

REENA: Oh.

 

LISA: The Athleta brand. Their girl bathing suits are fabulous. So that is how we have solved it with my younger daughter. And I don’t think they were in business doing girls’ bathing suits when my older daughter wanted one. But if there’s a parent there, and they are not cheap.

 

REENA: Yeah. 

 

LISA: I will say that, they are not cheap. But that has solved it. Cute as can be, but not sexualizing. 

 

REENA: Interesting. I didn’t realize that that was what they put out. First off, you mentioned boys and girls. I want to ask you, is the bathing suit issue, I mean obviously boys aren’t wearing bikini tops, but is there an equivalent of this in the swimsuit for boys?

 

LISA: I don’t really think so. I mean I think boys, it’s kind of wonderfully generic, what boys wear. And so they don’t have that issue. Which isn’t to say that boys don’t have pubertal timing issues, like there’s no question that the timing of puberty stirs up a lot of big feelings for boys. 

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: And here’s what we know, and let’s start with the boy piece, and we’ll think through the girl piece too. But what we know for boys is pubertal timing can have a lot of power in terms of social and athletic strength, or pull. That boys, their modal age of onset for puberty, their most common age at which they hit puberty is at age 14, but they are, they can be very far on either side of it. So some guys hitting at around 12, some guys hitting at around 16. And you know, puberty is a really long thing. I mean it’s starting in most kids by 11, so even saying there’s an age of onset is a little bit inaccurate. But you know, kids are all over the place. But you know, there’s nothing more fascinating than a pack of ninth grade boys, right? Because that’s the modal. Because there’s some who truly look like sixth graders. I mean there’s some who truly just look like sixth graders and there are some who are shaving full beards, you know?

 

REENA: Yeah. 

 

LISA: And have hair all over their legs and they’re these big kids. And for the guys who hit puberty early, we’ve long seen there’s social cache that comes with it, they’re taller, they’re seen as older, which then causes adults to respond to them as if they are older, which in many ways can be good for them in terms of them sort of stepping up maturationally. And then Reena, it’s the sports. Right? It’s the sports that matter. And it is really hard to be a budding ninth grade athlete boy who is trying to compete in what still looks like a seventh grade body against adult male bodies. I mean it’s really hard. And social prowess goes very far for teenage boys. 

 

REENA: It does, it does. I have so many questions on this issue, I want to ask how parents can help, whether you have a boy or a girl and they’re not hitting puberty at the same time. Lisa, you really struck a nerve with me about how puberty can affect boys so severely because of the athletic component to all of this. What’s your advice for parents, whether you have a boy or a girl? Or maybe you want to break it down separately for gender. But how do you help your kid when they’re struggling, because their friends might be developing ahead of them?

 

LISA: Yeah, it’s hard. Okay, so let’s do what we know about the research on girls and pubertal timing, because it will really affect then how we think about comforting kids who don’t feel good about how it’s going. So interestingly, the rule has tended to be in the research that early puberty is good for boys, if we consider it good to have lots of social sway and athletic prowess, it’s definitely connected to other things, we see it as being mood-improving for boys. And we have generally seen early puberty as bad for girls. Even though this child in this letter is sad about not being on the earlier edge, when we look broadscale, what we see is that the girls who hit puberty earlier, what we see is that their bodies become sexualized earlier.

 

REENA: Oh wow. 

 

LISA: That they are working in that space earlier. And it is generally associated with lower self-esteem and more involvement in, you know, heterosexual romantic activity, and what it can also draw, and this is where for me it gets really concerning, it can draw the interest of older guys. That one of the problems with being a seventh grade girl in full bloom is that it can get the attention of ninth and 10th and 11th grade boys. And pubertally, they might actually be a match. You know, a seventh grade girl and a tenth grade boy may be at the exact same phase of pubertal development, because girls are two years ahead. So modal age of onset for boys is 14, for girls it’s roughly 12, but it also breaks down by race actually. There’s different patterns across different groups, but you don’t really want ninth grade boys lurking around your seventh grade daughter. And it’s not because ninth grade boys as a group are a problem, ninth grade boys can be absolutely wonderful. The ninth grade boys who take an interest in the seventh grade girls, they tend not to be your first choice of the guys you would want lurking around.

 

REENA: I can imagine. My gosh.

 

LISA: So we’ve generally seen that it’s better to be late, even though that may not be how it feels for this kid. And what I will say, Reena about all of these things, these are big broad strokes. 

 

REENA: Totally. 

 

LISA: How any one kid’s puberty plays out in their lives is very specific to that kid. But when we look broad stroke, this is what we see. 

 

REENA: This is so good to know. Not even for your own kid, but for their pack. Right? For their friends and just making them kind of aware. But I want to go back to the boy for a second here, because we talk a lot about social lives for kids, and how that’s important. So if you have a son who’s blooming later, what’s your advice? Like should you have an open conversation about this? What do you need to hit on, what do you need to focus on?

 

LISA: I think a lot of comforting and acknowledging, right? That it’s not fun to be a guy, especially if you’re an athlete, who’s body is lagging behind the physical development of kids you are competing with literally physically. So I think there can be a lot of giving comfort to that, a lot of acknowledging that. I think you can say, look, you can work on other things in the meantime. So say it’s soccer. So say, you can build your foot skills and you can do that now, your pubertal development does not have any say in that. So there can be ways that we can reassure them, of while your body’s catching up, and it will absolutely catch up, there’s no question it will happen, but you can’t make it happen, you have to lean into other aspects of your development that you can control. And that’s, I think, as good as it gets. And that’s the same, I think, for the girl in this letter. Say look, there’s nothing you can do about this, but what can you control? I think for the girl in the letter, what the parent can say is, I know it doesn’t feel this way, but I have to tell you actually, it’s better for you to bloom late. Like when we look at the research, you getting to have a kid body for longer is actually a nice thing for you. You get to still be a kid. You don’t have to worry about your body coming into its adult female form yet. So you can try to talk it up, even though it may not feel very compelling to this kid who’s looking at the girls around her. But I think we have to acknowledge the downsides and then also cheer for some of the upsides, or point to where kids do have control. 

 

REENA: But what are the points where the kids do have control? Because if you’re a boy, sports could be hugely important, or just even appearing, even if you don’t play sports, appearing like you’re in that league. And for girls, well, they might not want to have comfort in being the kid. They’re ready to have that next phase but their body isn’t quite ready where they might think that they want to physically be. 

 

LISA: No that’s true. Okay so for boys, if your son’s a very serious athlete and his body is taking its time to come into its adult male form, I guess one of the things I would wonder about is pick your sports carefully. Right? I mean there may be sports that don’t so much disadvantage guys who are not yet at their full size and strength. So it may be more like racket sports, more skilled sports like that, where you don’t have to be six-foot to dominate. You can dominate from a number of sizes. This of course presumes a whole lot of access and a whole lot of privilege, but I think, you know, if you’re wonderful ninth grader who’s very much still a peanut, is sometimes how I think about them, is like, I’m going out for football, you might be like, yeah, well or maybe soccer or maybe.

 

REENA: Right, right. 

 

LISA: So I think that may be a place where they can have some say. I’ll tell you Reena where I’ve seen the sports thing cut in a very specific way for girls and puberty that’s been fascinating, and it’s an interesting version of this, I’ve taken care of a lot of young girls over their development who are very serious about ballet. You know how girls can be sometimes, at three or four they get hardcore about ballet and then they stay hardcore, and they really have this whole vision of themselves as ballerinas and their world is ballerinas and they want to be a ballerina as an adult. And then what I’ve seen happen on more than a few occasions is that girl hits puberty, and then she is 5′ 10″ and basically. 

 

REENA: Not dainty.

 

LISA: No longer ballerina-sized. 

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: And so, what’s been fascinating is to watch the reorganization of identity that needs to happen for those girls. So I think, we just want to really appreciate that identity is both critical for teenages, and it’s also fluid. So we have, you know, little peanut girls who are convinced they’re going to be ballerinas for their whole life and suddenly in ninth and 10th grade, that identity that had been so fully formed is now having to be renegotiated because of the outcome of puberty. And we have little peanut guys who are like, I want to be on the basketball team, like I love basketball, it’s my favorite sport, but for whom puberty is just not coming along quickly, who made need to renegotiate that identity. So what we always want to do when we’re caring for adolescents through these moments where they lose control, I mean I think that’s what’s really happening, like they’ve lost control of something that’s actually pretty critical in terms of the wishes they have, we want to support them as they figure out what their new identity will be, that falls in line with where they stand physically. 

 

REENA: So how do you encourage that? I’m thinking the ballerina, I’m thinking the kid who might have played flag football and now tackle is way harder, you know. How do you help negotiate that identity? You can have them power through and just say keep going, keep doing what you’re doing, if you believe and love it, but if you want them to see, okay, these are some other options you might like, how do you negotiate that?

 

LISA: I think you start by saying alright, I know ballet was your thing, or I know you had this idea of playing on the football team, right now, that’s not the hand you’re dealt physically. It may not make sense. And really starting there, of not rushing to reassurance. Not, oh I’m sure it’ll be fine, I’m sure you’ll be okay, like, oh whatever, ballet wasn’t going to be forever anyway. I think that instinct of just trying to blow past it and point them towards the new, better thing, it’s an incredibly well-meaning instinct, I think it’s hard for kids to join adults in that, if they don’t feel like the person really sat with them and was like, oh man, this stinks. Like you really thought you were going to be a ballerina, and then your body did something in puberty that has made a professional career in ballet highly unlikely for you. And just sitting with that helps, not feeling like they can’t have those upset feelings. Then, once they had them, say okay, in light of your amazing talents, and in light of your other interests, what else might you want to look into?

 

REENA: And let them lead the way. 

 

LISA: Yeah. Yeah. But only after acknowledging that this is kind of a raw deal. 

 

REENA: Correct.

 

LISA: I mean I can totally see situations where there’s a kid who himself is a more skilled athlete than the boy who is bigger. But the boy who is bigger may be, you know, getting on the first string because size can matter so much in some boys’ sports. And how frustrating that would be for this smaller, skilled athlete to observe. So we’ve just got to talk about it. 

 

REENA: I want to get back to this issue of this letter here, and the clothing topic as well, because that’s such a huge issue for girls, right? When the mom brings up this issue, what do you think parents, especially of girls, should do when it comes to this issue of clothing? 

 

LISA: Okay, well can I start with a rant? Do you mind?

 

REENA: Yeah, yeah. You don’t rant often so this is interesting. 

 

LISA: Yeah, so every once in a while I’m like, oh I have a rant on that. So one thing that makes me absolutely bananas is that it’s not that unusual for some quadron of adults to be critical of girls’ sexual presentations of themselves. You know, ways in which online or in what they’re dressing, like oh my god those shorts are too short or that top is too tiny or whatever. And the thing that makes me bananas, and Reena you will soon find this as you go shopping, that’s what’s available. Like there’s actually not a lot of other clothing options. 

 

REENA: It’s hard to find. 

 

LISA: And so I’m like, this is so unfair to teenage girls. Like that the adults who dictate what is available on the rack, it is adults who are dictating what’s available on the rack, and they are serving up itty bitty things and skinny jeans, which luckily I think skinny jeans are a little bit on the outs, which is fun.

 

REENA: It is. 

 

LISA: It is.

 

REENA: I have actual fashion confirmation just so you know.

 

LISA: Good, good. So they’re serving up these things that are very very body-conscious, and then it’s other adults who are like, oh my gosh why are those girls wearing all those body-conscious clothes? And I’m like, that is totally not fair. So one thing that is, like I think slightly improving, is right now the fashions are a little looser, now the fashions have a little bit more coverage, it probably won’t last, but the challenge of finding clothes where the kid feels good about it and the parent feels good about it, especially when the fashions go to the very body-conscious, as they have for a while, is really really hard. So here’s a trick that I learned from another parent years ago. When you go shopping with any teenager, it can be very helpful to walk into the store with mutual veto power.

 

REENA: Oh.

 

LISA: So anyone can veto anything. So the way that this works is you go to the racks. You go the racks, your kid goes to the racks, you pull out all the stuff you like, and you can look at anything your kid has pulled and say veto veto veto, and they have to put it back, and then they can look at anything you’ve pulled and they can say veto veto, and you have to put it back, and you work with what remains. This is pretty effective. 

 

REENA: So both people have veto power, but I see this situation ending poorly with no clothing. 

 

LISA: Well because that could totally happen. It could totally happen. It could be a long day. But what it does get you out of is negotiations. You’re just like, nope nope nope, and your kid’s like nope nope nope, and you just keep going until you find something that you can live with.

 

REENA: So Lisa, what about the girls who hit puberty really really early. What do parents need to know?

 

LISA: Oh man. Okay, so as much as the kid in this letter is like, I wish I were that kid, there are a lot of kids who are like, I really wish I were not that kid. 

 

REENA: Yeah. Showing up earlier than everyone else, it’s not that fun.

 

LISA: It’s not fun. It is not fun. And it can be not fun on a lot of levels. And I mean, trying to manage a period in the fifth grade, I mean there’s a lot that is, you know, sometimes fourth grade, sometimes younger, there’s a lot that is sometimes really unhappy about this for kids who are on the early side of puberty. And they will complain openly about this, like that they don’t like it, that they don’t want it, that it feels too early. And so if that’s your kid, I think the thing to say is look, just because your body has decided it’s going to be much more grownup, that doesn’t mean you have to join it. You are a little kid, you get to be a little kid, you can play with your little kid toys for as long as you want to, your body is on its own schedule, we’ll find you clothes that you’re comfortable in, we’ll make that happen, but don’t feel that this is the end of getting to be a kid. Like I think it’s important for parents to say that to kids. 

 

REENA: But if they feel like their body’s changing, how do you get them to believe that, that their childhood isn’t ending?

 

LISA: Well, it’s interesting because they’re like, you know you’re telling me that my childhood’s not ending, I’m now carrying tampon packs to school, right?

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: This is not fun.

 

REENA: Exactly. Exactly.

 

LISA: Yeah, I mean I think you can say, yeah, no this stinks, I wish it were later, this is something I wish you were dealing with later in life, but kids do take their cues from us. And if we say, you know what? Period schmeriod, you can still have fun, you can still be a kid, you don’t have to let this get in your way, that can go pretty far. You know, that can reassure them that they don’t, they can still enjoy the things they want to enjoy and you can help them deal with their period as a sort of matter of fact thing. Or you’ll help them find a bra that they’re comfortable in as a sort of matter of fact thing. 

 

REENA: So zooming out, when parents are dealing with puberty, what do you think are some things parents might not know that they should keep in mind? 

 

LISA: I think it starts a lot earlier than parents are expecting, I think that, you know, even neurologically we think changes are on their way by 11 in most kids.

 

REENA: Wow.

 

LISA: Yeah, and so parents should be ready for that. For girls, the age of puberty has been dropping, so the parents’ memory of puberty might be very different from their kids’ experience, especially their daughter’s experience of puberty. But I think, the thing for us to really remember is this is not comfortable for kids. Right? Just when they want more privacy and more autonomy their body is making this public display that everybody can take an interest in. So we want any conversation about puberty with our kids to be one where we are really reassuring and really kind and we go at it delicately, and the conversations are kept short. That is mostly what kids want for anything having to do with puberty.

 

REENA: Oh that’s good, the conversations are kept short. Because you know me, I feel like I have to go on and on and on, and my husband’s like, I think we’re done with this talk. And I’m like, no, but. And the kids are just very uncomfortable. That is good to know. 

 

LISA: Yeah. 

 

REENA: You know, I still remember my mom taking me, I think it was JCPenney, to go get my first training bra. Maybe it was Sears. And I did not like the feeling of that training bra against my skin. 

 

LISA: Okay Reena, you know what I remember, don’t tell anyone, not that I’m telling our whole audience, I remember trying to convince my mom I needed a bra.

 

REENA: Really?

 

LISA: Yeah yeah no, I remember exactly how it went down. I remember the house we were living in, I must have been in sixth or seventh grade, and everybody else had a bra. I made her stand at the bottom of the stairs and I jogged down the stairs in my t-shirt trying to show her that I had something that was moving on my chest. It was sort of pathetic, I love our stories. But isn’t it amazing how vivid this is for both of us.

 

REENA: Decades later you remember everything, or many of the things that happened during those years.

 

LISA: Oh man.

 

REENA: I think they’re defining, I really do. 

 

LISA: They’re hard, they’re hard. Absolutely, absolutely. 

 

REENA: We can agree they’re hard. What do you have for us Lisa, for parenting to go?

 

LISA: So, on the topic of puberty, and on the topic of kids not wanting to have long conversations with us, there are fabulous books about puberty. There’s “Guy Stuff” by Dr. Cara Natterson about boy puberty.

 

REENA: Love that one.

 

LISA: Yep, it’s a great one. And then there’s “The Care and Keeping of You,” parts one and two out of the American Girl library, which Dr. Cara Natterson, this is our friend and guest, has done. But there’s other excellent ones through the American Academy of Pediatrics, there’s wonderful puberty books. What I would say to parents is get these books, and actually get both, regardless of the gender of your child, they should know about ht pubertal development of the other gender I think also, and say to your kid, I put some books on your bed, if you have any questions let me know. Because that can be a way that they can get good information at a pace that they want and can tolerate and it can be a nice way to make sure they’re not made too uncomfortable from the conversations with us. 

 

REENA: Cara Natterson’s books, that was the best recommendation. Because during COVID, you know, the education just wasn’t there in school, so I cannot recommend those books enough. I think it’s really a great entry point to have these conversations.

 

LISA: I do too.

 

REENA: Lisa, next week we’re going to talk about how can you help when your kid is in love. 

 

LISA: Not everyone’s ready for that

 

REENA: You’re right. I’ll see you next week.

 

LISA: See you next week. 

 

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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