For many, the pandemic has scrambled any sense of passing time. Parents and pediatricians know better: Babies turn into toddlers, who turn into elementary school students, who eventually hit puberty. Kids grow up no matter what happens in the outside world.
"I have a number of patients who have gotten their periods since the pandemic started," said Dr. Katherine Williamson, a pediatrician in Ladera Ranch, California. It can seem like one more thing at a stressful time. But Williamson said the pandemic might have a silver lining for kids going through puberty in her community, where nearly all schooling is virtual.
"The moms were like, 'Thank goodness she was at home!'" Williamson said. "They don't have to deal with their first period when they're at school."
That goes for other key transitions, too. "For girls who are putting on bras for the first time, or for boys whose voices are starting to crack ... it is actually nice to go through the physical changes in the safety of their own home."
While many kids are missing their peers, psychologist Lisa Damour said the playground isn't always the healthiest place to learn about bodily changes such as budding breasts, pubic hair or periods.
"So much of what happens is awkward comparison," said Damour, a senior advisor to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University, whose podcast "Ask Lisa" explores the psychology of parenting. "When kids bodies are changing, or not changing, as quickly as their peers' are, kids are very conscious of that." The changes that come with puberty can be challenging for kids and adults, but Damour said supporting your adolescent doesn't have to be (too) awkward. Here's what you need to know about puberty in the pandemic, including "the talk," adolescent self-care and TikTok. Inviting conversations about puberty For starters, Damour said the idea of a single, epic encounter that puts all of puberty on the table — with a side of excruciating discomfort — is the wrong place to start. "There's no such thing as 'the talk,'" she said. "Kids dip in and out of this: Their curiosity changes, the level of questions they're asking changes. What they want to know changes from year to year." Puberty blockers can be 'life-saving' drugs for trans teens, study shows To invite these kinds of ongoing conversations, Damour said parents can simply make it clear that they're available to chat. "One nice way to do that is to say: 'I know your body is going through some changes. If you have questions about it, feel free to ask me, and I promise to only answer the question you have asked. I won't turn it into a big lecture,'" she said. "And then parents have to keep that promise." In addition, Damour recommended buying your child a book on changing bodies. "Hand it to your child or leave it in their room and say, 'I got you a book to answer some questions you may be having, and I'm always happy to talk,'" she said. (There are many such books, but Damour likes a series by author and pediatrician Dr. Cara Natterson.) By offering kids time and space to approach questions their own way, parents demonstrate that they won't make a big deal out of things, which Damour said is one of the worries keeping youth from speaking up. It's also an opportunity to make it clear that you're comfortable talking through questions about changing bodies — and by modeling that attitude, you can help your kids to feel more comfortable, too. Of course, not all parents are comfortable talking about puberty. Sound familiar? Damour said you might benefit from reading one of the same books she recommends for youth. Parents of girls can check out Natterson's "The Care and Keeping of You 1," while parents of boys might read "Decoding Boys." If your teen is transgender, a go-to book is "Transgender Teen: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals Supporting Transgender and Non-Binary Teens," by Stephanie Brill. Going through puberty in uncertain times And since the changes your child is experiencing aren't happening in a vacuum, Damour said it's also important to be open in other conversations, whether you're discussing protests against racism or the uncertain future of the pandemic that's shaping our lives. "It's really important to be honest with kids, but not to terrify them," she said. "A parent might say: 'There are definitely things we're not sure about, and we're not sure how they'll play out.' And say that in a tone that isn't highly anxious or stressed." Self-care for parents in a pandemic: Finding the time when you don't have it Despite the extraordinary times, Damour said kids still need what they've always needed — a sense of stability and support. "From there, the parents can say, 'Here are the things we do know,'" Damour said. "We're going to take care of you. You're going to learn and grow. Your needs will be met. We'll have a nice time as a family. Those things are guaranteed." One way to reinforce that is to create new routines, Damour said, even in the midst of upended academic and social lives. "Parents and kids benefit from having routines," she said. "There may be different routines over the course of this year, but it's really worthwhile for parents to go out of their way to establish routines so that there is predictability for kids, especially when the broader context feels unpredictable. " Self-care and social lives To weather the stress of puberty and the challenging times we're all living through, Damour also emphasized the importance of offering kids space to take care of themselves. "It's incredibly conscientious self-care," she said. "Getting lots of sleep, being physically active, eating well, finding happy distractions. Find things that are really enjoyable and let kids take a mental vacation from the pandemic." A teen's guide to managing your parents, relationships and coronavirus For many kids, an important part of well-being is spending time with their friends, Damour said, even if it takes some time to arrange pandemic-safe meetings. "It's important for them to have time to see their friends in person," Damour said. That might mean backyard gatherings with enough supervision to ensure they maintain physical distance, she said, or sending them on a bike ride. (The sixth episode of Damour's podcast, "Will the Pandemic Disrupt My Kid's Social Development?" tackles this topic in greater depth.) "There is something that cannot be replaced with social media contact, about kids just getting to be in one another's company and just enjoy being together," she said. "It's imperative that adults find ways to make that happen, even if that puts much more of a burden on us." But as with changing bodies, Damour said parents can let their children lead when it comes to determining how to socialize. And for some introverted youth, the pandemic has been a welcome break from the pressures of spending time in the hypersocial environment of in-person school. "It's important to follow kids' cues on how much social contact they need," said Damour. "If the child is OK with the level of social contact they have, the parent should start from the assumption that they don't need to intervene." Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team. Even with extra help from parents, lots of that social contact will be online. And while connecting to peers through social media might feel like a shift in mindset for parents, Damour said it's what works for some kids. "There's a lot of ways for kids to meet those needs," Damour said. "Parents shouldn't presume that there's one way to get this right." Tips to go
Puberty in a pandemic might be scary for parents, but virtual schooling can offer kids a break from social pressure.
There's no one "talk." Instead, invite your child to ask questions where and when they feel comfortable.
Books can help. Pick up a volume with expert advice for your child (and maybe yourself).
Be honest about what's happening in the world. At the same time, remind your child of the things — such as your love — that will stay the same.
Work to establish new family routines, including essential time for self-care.
Follow your kid's lead on their social life, whether they're yearning for in-person hangouts or happy to keep it virtual.