Unpacking Modern Puberty

Natterson, Dr. Cara and Vanessa Kroll Bennett photo

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Jan 8, 2024

by Katherine Martinko

“One hundred percent of all people on Earth go through puberty,” says Dr. Cara Natterson. That is why talking about it is important, along with making it “not cringy, less awkward, and more positive.”

Natterson, a pediatrician, podcast host, and bestselling author, is on a mission to “flip puberty positive,” along with Vanessa Kroll Bennett, a long-time puberty educator, writer, and mother of four. Together, the two have written a book called This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today collectively have a deep body of expertise and lived experience in the field of children and adolescents. Dr. Karen Natterson is a pediatrician, New York Times best selling author, entrepreneur and a mother of two. Vanessa Bennett. Crowell is a puberty educator, and writer and entrepreneur and a mother of four. Together they are the authors of this is so awkward, modern puberty explained. They both join us today from Los Angeles, thank you so much for being here. Thank you,

thanks for having us.

Six teens between the two of you. So you really are in many respects, the very target audience that this book is written in aimed for? How would you describe the key characteristics of modern puberty?

Well, simply put, puberty today starts earlier, it lasts longer. And it happens with a cell phone. And each of those elements is a really important aspect. So it starts on average, between eight and nine for girls, and between nine and 10. For boys, it lasts all the way through high school for most kids. So it runs basically a decade. And of course, all of the technology around them is affecting everything from their physical development, to what they’re seeing, and learning and the impressions being placed upon them, which is shifting their relationships and their emotional status. So it’s very different.

It is very different and really eye opening for a lot of parents of a certain vintage a certain age who maybe haven’t thought about it that in those terms, they just see all the challenges. So what would you say some of those main differences are when you’re talking about puberty today.

I mean, I think technology plays a huge role in how the adolescent experience looks and feels, today, social media access to information reliable or not access to pornography, online, and just constant contact socially via social media and technology. So their whole social emotional experience is impacted by technology. In addition, the way puberty has stretched means that kids who are the same age chronologically and the same age in terms of their brain development, and their emotional life could look five or six years apart in age. And so the incongruity between how a kid appears and how old they actually are, can make it hard for the kids themselves, and also hard for the adults caring for them.

So certainly a vast, complex topic. How would you describe what the impetus for this book was?

Well, I mean, you said at the top, we have a fair amount of experience. This is true. Collectively, we’ve been doing this work for about 35 years. And it was really born out of the bigger mission that we have to flip puberty, positive 100% Of all people on Earth, go through puberty. This is not a gendered topic, even though when I say puberty, most people think girls, not true. Everyone goes through puberty. And so Vanessa and I have worked together for years now, building an entire company that is dedicated to making the process not cringy. less awkward and more positive. We have a podcast, we make products that make puberty more comfortable. How could we not write a book, when it is all we do all day, every day?

So take us through that process for a little bit in terms of what was your approach to the research and in putting this book together?

So we wrote the book in three months on zoom across the country car lives in LA, which is why we’re sitting in a zoom box together, because we’re on our book tour together this week in LA, and I live in New York. And we this is what we live in breed. So we sat down and we thought about what are the topics that we get asked about every single day? What is the information that people need? So they need the science they need to understand how society and biology have evolved in the last few decades. And they need the language and the scripting and the guidance for how to talk to kids about all of it. So Leanne, we literally sat down and we’re like, okay, what are the chapters, and we went through all of the greatest hits of everything we cover in the podcast and in our workshops and our parent education. And it just sort of flowed out of it.
I told Vanessa, that people write books in three months, because I’ve written books before. And Vanessa was like, oh, okay, they do. She, it was my dirty little secret. I didn’t really tell her most people don’t do that.
Yeah, it was it was a constant. Unlike puberty, which is stretched in timeline, writing our book was a concentrated timeline. But it was really I mean, we were able to access all the experts that we use on our podcasts. And in our work anyways, who were available to be resources to us to be interviewed. We had sensitivity readers, we had everybody in our fingertips who we could make sure we were delivering, even in a quick timeframe, really factual, fact checked science based information. And I’ll add one other group we had. So we have a group of interns who worked for us, they ranged in age from 18 to 22, they have a lot to say about what it’s like to go through puberty today. And so they wrote about it. And each of them wrote about their experiences and gave amazing advice.

That’s so important in terms of having that voice and adding that voice to the book. Can I ask you, let’s talk about the science. So let’s unpack that a little bit, in terms of what would you suggest are some of the main science pieces that you uncovered that parents really should know about?

So the data on when puberty begins, is not new, this sort of shocking fact that girls are between eight and nine, on average, there’s a wide range, but girls are between eight and nine boys are between nine and 10. This is data from 2010, and 2012. So I think the most interesting piece of the science of this all is that the science is a decade or more old, it’s just been buried, it’s been buried beneath a pile of other things going on for parents and for kids. And the the follow up question we always get is, well, why does it matter that you know, when your kids are going into puberty? And the answer is because the hormones that are in charge of the process of sexual maturation, which is what puberty is, it’s the path from not being able to be reprinted a reproducer, not being able to make be part of making a baby to being able to potentially reproduce, right? That path through sexual maturity is governed by hormones. And those hormones are not just circulating around the body, they’re circulating around the brain. So kids feel the impact of those hormones. And they express them in moodiness. And what a lot of parents don’t recognize, because no one has connected the dots for them, is it the kids who are living under their roof, or the teachers who are say, seeing kids in their classroom, or the coaches who are seeing kids on their field, who are watching these kids seem so emotionally volatile? These are kids that are in the early stages of puberty, and this is what’s happening. Now I will add that it has been very complicated by a mental health emergency during and post COVID. And it’s really hard to tell these things apart. But that’s where the data comes in. That’s where the science comes in, in terms of trying to tease all this apart and understand what’s what and how one thing influences another.

What are some other examples of key topics that you cover, that are really salient and important in the world we live in today when we talk about puberty.

One of the chapters that resonates most with people is the chapter on brain development. And understanding that a fully mature brain really doesn’t happen until close to 30 years old. And when you’re dealing with middle schoolers, so kids, you know, around 1112 13, the part of their brain that has already become mature is the limbic system, which is the pleasure seeking risk reward part of the brain, but the CEO of the brain, the prefrontal cortex has another decade and a half or more to become mature. So people always joke like, oh, well do teenagers have a brain? Yes, they do. But they have different it’s a different stages of maturity. And so one thing that adults and kids really love learning about is what are the strategies and skills in making good decisions in the context of a brain that is under construction. So that’s a really big one. Another big one. Leanne is around horn and sexuality and hookup culture, which we I have in the book, it broken out into different sections, because people are really interested in how do I talk about it, when is the right time what is appropriate, and yet they’re all intertwined, and still independent issues. So those are two kind of tastes for the variety, the wide variety of topics in the book and the ones that sort of people wrote most resonate with people.

You alluded earlier to Youth Mental Health, and the fact that it is a global epidemic that started much before the pandemic, could you take us through your findings and what’s in the book as it relates to mental health triggers for kids hitting puberty and in puberty.

So the, the overlap between puberty and adolescence is almost complete, right? Puberty begins eight 910, for a lot of kids. Adolescence used to be what we call the tween and teen years, right. And that was the relational, the emotional, the social piece of all this personal development. Well, now these these are totally overlapping, which means that the triggers that have caused mental health issues are also fully overlapping. And so you will read about all of the Social Triggers that create chronic stress for kids and adults. So it’s every I mean, this can be a very depressing list when we when we run through it when we’re speaking. And we begin to talk about the things that make people worry. And the worry actually translates into shifting the hormones in their body. It’s environmental shifts, it’s war, it’s economic instability, it’s food insecurity. It’s violence in the home or violence in the community. I mean, there are so many sort of tentacles here. And they exist in and around puberty. And what’s amazing about it Lianne is that they directly impact the body because the body responds to stress, by risk by releasing cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone, we now understand that cortisol probably tips kids into puberty a little bit earlier. So they’re all of these world stressors that are certainly playing a role. I’ll also add that being a child today looks different than being a child, 20 3040 years ago, look. Now granted, it also looked very different 60 and 70, and 80 years ago, and someone argued that there was, there was no word for adolescents a century ago, because you went from being a child to being employed, and you were functionally an adult. So, you know, it’s, it’s not that we are going to ignore the history that’s more remote. But being a child today, almost feels like a pre professional rat race for some kids, whether it’s sports specialization, or expectations in the classroom, or the achievement culture that has turned toxic in general. And yeah, have to add those to the list of stressors, right? It’s a lot to be a kid today.

Without question, and so if I’m a parent listening to or watching this interview, and taking all this in, and really wondering, like, where do I start, I can read the book, like, how do I know where to start? Because everybody’s situation is different. Every child is different. What would you suggest to them?

I mean, there are some fundamental aspects to teaching kids about their changing bodies, and their changing emotional and social realities that we encourage any adult caring for any child to lay that foundation. Because every family is different. Every kid is different. Every community is different. So there are some things we can’t offer blanket, guidance on. But we really do believe that as young as kids on the changing table should understand and know the names of all of their body parts, the correct anatomical names, because research tells us that actually keeps them safer from sexual predation. It also keeps them safer because they can communicate with health care providers when something doesn’t feel good, and hurts or stings or whatever it is. The second thing that we really encourage people to talk about as soon as they can, is about consent, but not consent in the context of sexual relationships consent in the context of can I sit on your lap? Can I braid your hair? Can I hold your hand? Can I have a bite of Your sandwich. And so as younger kids learn the skills of asking for permission and requiring permission for any of these human interactions, all of a sudden, they’re building the skills for consent for later on when the stakes are higher, and it is about intimate relationships. And the last thing that we really encourage people not to forget about is to talk about love, love of friends and love of intimate partners. And when you talk about sex, or you talk about friendship, or you talk about changing relationships, love is a big part of it. But so often we go to the like, the scary places, or the fear mongering places, and we forget to talk about the beautiful stuff that goes on as people grow older and mature and connected to new people.

When we talk about some of the topics that parents today are having to deal with, when they have a child in puberty, going through puberty, we talked about porn, we talked about social media, gender, and the and gendering of body image is something that you talk about, as well as sexual orientation. What is your central message in terms of how parents can handle these topics with their children?

Yeah, so you brought up three, particularly big ones, body image, gender identity, sexual orientation. And what those three topics share in common is an absolute mandate for the adults who love and care for kids to understand the vocabulary and the issues at hand. And to get curious, take your judgment, put it aside and get curious about what is happening to the kids in your lives. I’ll start with body image. So we have generally thought a body image for decades as a female issue. It is not 50% Of all people who struggle with body image or male body image extends across the gender spectrum. And in fact, people who identify as LGBTQ plus tend to have the highest rate of body image issues, body image issues, then put you at much higher risk for eating disorders. When we don’t talk to everyone equally, about how they feel about themselves and how they look. We are doing a disservice to the people who are left out of the conversation, namely the boys. And so it’s incumbent upon us to go okay, well, we learned about a differently when we were growing up, but it’s a new world. And I’m willing to understand that there is this really intense, ideal male body type that most males cannot live up to or cannot live up to safely and healthily. Let’s talk about it. Let’s do what we’ve done for girl culture, with boy culture. So that’s one example.

And then, with respect to something like gender identity, we hear from caregivers all the time that they want to get it right, that they want to get the language right that they don’t want to inadvertently hurt a kid’s feelings or offend them or undermine their journey. But the language changes on a seemingly daily basis. And this is a moment where we actually believe in asking the kids to be our guides, and our teachers, because they are so much more comfortable with changing language and different identities and pronouns and ways that people choose to express themselves. And so we really encourage adults to say to a kid like, well, what would you say here, or I noticed a friend is using new pronouns, I want to be respectful. What’s the best way for me to do that, and rather than shy away from it, because it feels intimidating and scary, we encourage adults to go to the kids in their lives and get their advice and their guidance. With respect to stuff around sexual orientation or gender identity. It can be really tempting for parents to want to know exactly who their kids are or who their kids are attracted to. But kids are on a journey. And they may not know they may not know what their gender identity is going to turn out to be. Or they may not know what their sexual orientation may end up as if anything. I mean, they could decide they’re pansexual and they will never land on one particular kind of partner. And so based on all of the experts that we use for the our research in the book, they really encourage parents to leave a non judgmental, open communication door open for kids so that they can be in conversation about where they are and where what their journey sounds like, rather than trying to pin them down in a moment, when kids don’t even know like, what they want for dinner next week, or what they’re doing this summer, so something as big as their sexual orientation, or gender identity is a really big ask for kids of this age.

You know, it’s interesting, because in many households, and for many parents, a main stumbling block is getting over their own awkwardness with the topic of puberty, you talked about it should happen starting at a young age, and, you know, consistently over time, what would you suggest to those parents who have to do that mental shift themselves, before contemplating engaging in a conversation with their child.

So we talk about the concept of leaving your baggage at the door, which is, when we think back to our own childhoods, and our own adolescence, it might be how the adults in our lives did or did not talk to us about puberty or sexuality. It might be painful memories for us that we still carry with us into our adulthood. And we’re really tempted to let those memories and form and dictate the conversations with the kids in our lives. So instead, we encourage adults to leave their baggage at the door to identify what is sitting on their shoulders as they go through this journey with kids, and find their own trusted adults to talk to you about the story. They desperately want to tell their kid about that time where they were so lonely and cry themselves to sleep every night. But maybe that’s not the best story to tell a kid who’s in a moment of struggle. Maybe that’s when you save for a friend or a partner or a therapist. What we do encourage adults to do is tell kids stories of humor and resilience from their own adolescence, because that gives kids a sense of hope. And a sense of agency that like oh, yeah, I can get through this. I got it. It’s hard now. But this is just, you know, a bump in the road. And there’s a long journey ahead.

Now, Dr. Natterson, you’ve been a pediatrician for 25 plus years, you’ve got a 20 year old and an 18 year old. I’m curious as to what you learned in the course of writing this book, in the course of researching it, that you now apply. That’s even surprised you?

Lianne I learned the word situationship, which is just about the best word I’ve ever learned in my entire life. situation, I learned a lot of vocabulary from not just my kids as they’ve grown up, but from the kids who work with us day in and day out. A situation ship is a bucket term to describe the vast range of romantic relationships that exist in dating today. I think that kids would probably take offense even to that definition, because I use the word relationship in it and, and dating and dating, and many situation ships are not related to them. They are not dating. But it’s very hard to you ask about sort of the concept of bringing your own baggage to the equation, it’s very hard for us to understand the path through sexual and emotional and social maturation when things change, when social norms shift. And so when when adults hear about hookup culture, or when they see how kids interact on screens, and sometimes it’s just bonding and being silly. And it’s like what we did when we were talking on the phone, but sometimes it’s very, very different. And wrapping our brains around those concepts are it’s really hard. So the most fun part of writing this book was leaning into the new language and understanding, giving voice to what they do and say, because, you know, we may have feelings about it. But that doesn’t really change anything about the way they are experiencing. They’re coming of age. So that was for me, that was one highlight moment. And I do use that word often. And my kids cringe every time I use.

Now, Vanessa, you have three teenagers at home and four children in total. You’ve been a PE puberty educator for over 10 years. Is there such a thing as too much information in your world in terms of everything that you know your lived experience and then bringing it together in this book? And how does that impact how you parent?

I think there are moments when there’s TMI too much information at that moment, so I believe that ultimately, throughout the course of caring for kids, we want to give them as much information as we possibly can in a shame free, non judgmental way. Except sometimes we’re so eager to give them information, we like to backup the dump truck, and tip it back and pour everything onto the kid and the kid is like, buried under all the information we’ve given them. And they can’t assimilate what they’ve just been told. So one of the things that I’ve really learned through the course of being an educator and also raising my own kids is actually sometimes it’s just a few sentences, some very small pieces of information. Sorry, one sec.
All right, Leah, that’s okay. Sometimes it’s just a few small pieces of information, like literally a sentence or two. And that’s it. And that’s all they need. And then they’ll come back for more because you didn’t lecture them. And you didn’t go on and on. And you didn’t give them inappropriately old information or babyish information, you found their level, map them where they were, and gave them what they needed in that moment.

It’s such an important point, because it is a discipline. And it is also for many parents, the ability to edit yourself, and to stop yourself before you go overboard, which then becomes a discipline. So I completely understand

so hard, it’s the hardest thing to do. I mean, when people say, can you boil down the book to one piece of advice, the one piece of advice is, listen more and lecture less. And that will keep kids in communication with us over this decade of puberty. And if you don’t get one piece in, or one little tidbit in, they will come back for more, or you can go back for more. But if you dump it all over them, they’re gonna, they’re gonna go running in the other direction. And that is not what we want.

Now, speaking of listening more and lecturing less, you alluded to the fact that there are young adults that you spoke to that are included in this book, who provided some perspective and insight on what they wish their parents had done. While they were going through puberty, and having that sort of that retrospective look at it, what struck you about what they shared about that?

You know, the most beautiful thing about that process was realizing, from a very different vantage point, that they really do care about the adults who care for them. So when you’re on the receiving end in your own home, sometimes it can feel like the care is a little bit asymmetrical, and we care more than they do. And they just care about their friends. When you read, the way they write about these experiences. What is so clear is that they have deep love and affection for the adults who care about them. They want to give the adults a chance to do it better. And Vanessa and I talk a lot about making mistakes and taking a do over and making a better taking a better approach the second time around. What they taught us in a different way than we’ve than I’ve ever learned from patients than I’ve ever learned from my own children is they want you to try again, when you stumble and fall. They want you to be there. They’re not afraid to be critics. They’re not afraid to tell you how you’ve got it wrong. But they want you there so desperately they want these teenagers want the adults there so badly that they put their words on paper and to publish it. And the whole world can now read about their first period, their first pimple, their first sexual experience, because they want the adults to know how badly the kids crave and care about the adult feedback in their lives.

What would you like each of you to have readers of this is so awkward leave with?

I think the recognition that they’re going to mess up and they’re going to mess up over and over throughout this journey of caring through caring for kids through puberty and that it’s okay, that you get many, many opportunities to do it again, to do it better sometimes to enforce on Fortunately, but that we need to cut ourselves some slack and say, Okay, I’m sorry, I messed that up, can I have another chance or, Oh, I totally blew up at you last night. And that was unfair and unkind. And I want to try again. Because what that does is two things. It gets kids the good information, and the empathy that they need during this time. It also models for them when they mess up, because God knows they will also mess up, that people will still love them, that people will still support them, that people will still be there for them when they mess up. And that there is coming back from their own mistakes, as well as seeing the adults come back from their mistakes.
And I’ll just add, that it’s an awkward stage of life. Right? The physicality of it alone is awkward, the feelings are awkward. It doesn’t have to be right if we all acknowledge that there are growing pains in life and that there are different stages of life that bring us different challenges. We can take that concept of deep crunchiness and flip it into open conversation that you can sometimes be moan but mostly laugh about learn from and create really deep bonds with the people around you who are going through it with you because boy, are they going through with you.

Lots of important insight Dr. Karen Patterson pediatrician, Vanessa Bennett Crowell, puberty editor, educator, thank you both so much for taking the time to share your perspectives with us today.

Thank you so much for having us.

They spoke with Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, about their book and their goal to educate and empower both children and parents.

Puberty today looks different than puberty in the past. The main differences are that it’s starting earlier, lasting longer, and now happens with a smartphone. The data on when puberty starts isn’t new (girls are between 8 and 9, boys between 9 and 10), but it’s been buried under other information. Parents should realize that the hormones that govern puberty (aka the
process of sexual maturation) circulate around the brain and can create the emotional volatility that makes raising pre-teens and adolescents so challenging.

When Castelino asks about how parents should start discussing puberty, Natterson and Bennett set out three pieces of advice. First, teach your child the correct anatomical terms. “Research tells us that this keeps them safer from sexual predation. It also keeps them safer because they can communicate with health care providers when something doesn’t feel good.”

Second, teach them about consent—not just sexual, but the basic skills of asking and requiring permission to have basic human interactions, like braiding hair or sitting in a lap or sharing food.

This Is So Awkward.Book coverThirdly, don’t forget to talk about love—love of friends and intimate partners alike. “So often we go to the scary places, the fear-mongering places, and we forget to talk about the beautiful stuff that goes on as people grow older and mature and connected to new people.”

Parents would do well to “listen more and lecture less.” Often teens just need small bits of information, and then they will come back for more. The young people interviewed for the book expressed how much they love the adults who care for them, even when it may seem otherwise: “What they taught us… is they want you to try again, when you stumble and fall.
They want you to be there.”

The message is, don’t give up, even if the conversation feels awkward or wrong. Just try again from a different angle and keep those lines of communication clear.

Related links:



Related articles:

Empowering Middle Schoolers to Thrive

Parenting Through Youth Mental Health Challenges

Simplifying the Sex Education Talk with Kids

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