By Michelle Seitzer
Our daughter turns 12 this year so we’re having a lot of conversations about puberty in our home.
Thankfully, we have a head start. A few years ago, a friend recommended “The Care & Keeping of You” and “The Feelings Book” (created by the American Girl brand) to help our daughter understand what to expect in her adolescent years. My daughter dove in right away since she’s always been fascinated by how the body works.
It’s still a touchy subject, and a conversation that many parents dread having. I get it. But you don’t have to do it alone, and you don’t have to cover everything in one sitting. Talking to your preteens about puberty — and all that goes with it — should be an ongoing dialogue, not a once-and-done “birds and bees” talk. And the more you prepare, the more confident you’ll feel — which trickles down to your preteens.
The ADHD brain during adolescence
Caronne Taylor Bloom, a licensed professional counselor, works with young clients who have ADHD at Children’s Integrated Center for Success in Pennsylvania. She explains how kids with ADHD experience unique challenges during the transition to teenhood.
Bloom, who has an ADHD diagnosis herself and is also parenting a son with ADHD, says that girls with ADHD tend to present as daydreamers. Hyperactivity may level out or even seem to decrease in the teen years (for boys and girls alike). But the inattentive aspect of ADHD — along with the challenges of impulse control and executive function delays — last a lifetime.
Because of the delays in executive function (which impacts the ability to plan, organize, prioritize and regulate emotions and impulses), there are huge developmental differences between kids with ADHD and their same-age neurotypical peers, says Bloom.
This gap becomes more evident in the pre-teen and teen years, when kids with ADHD are tracking about two to three years behind. And school is one of the places where this gap shows up, says Bloom.
When puberty hits — during the middle school years — students have to start changing classes, their homework is getting harder, and they’re given the responsibility of managing lockers.
“In middle school, everyone’s hanging on for dear life,” says Bloom. “But the kids (with ADHD) who can ‘fake it’ in elementary school may now have a harder time keeping up.”
At home, the changes may show up in different ways. Since emotional regulation is already a challenge for many kids with ADHD, the mood swings and heightened emotions common during puberty may be intensified. This can leave everyone under your roof feeling like they’re either walking on eggshells or riding a roller coaster. (In our house, it’s both!)
Six tips for having “the talk”
As you ride the waves of puberty and ADHD, ease into these conversations with these tips (and adapt them as needed for your tweens and teens — you know them best).
1. Do some research ahead of time.
Check out online resources for parenting a teen with ADHD, or ask your family doctor for some print materials they may have on the subject. Consider too how you might approach the conversation differently with a son versus a daughter.
2. Schedule a time and place to talk.
When I was a preteen, my mom took me out to dinner to have “the talk.” (She had given me a book a few weeks prior to review and think about.) Then we went to the mall and picked out a new outfit to celebrate the occasion. Making it special eased the awkwardness. And, as I was the oldest of five girls, it was also important that we were alone — and away from interruptions and distractions.
You don’t have to take your preteen on a date, but you should establish a time and place where you and your child will be focused. You can mix up the locations, or you can designate a place where you go consistently — out for ice cream, on a hike in the backyard or in your preteen’s room.
3. Make the conversation interactive and personalized.
Gauge your son’s or daughter’s interest ahead of time so you can be better prepared. Ask your preteen what they want to know or how they’d like to learn it. If it seems like this kind of chat falls under the “non-preferred task” category, then bundle it. Pair the talk with something they like: ice cream, painting or swinging, for example.
Would they prefer to read books on their own or with you? Are books just a source of frustration? Then ditch them and use visuals instead, like making an interactive quiz on Kahoots or a short PowerPoint with pictures from your teen years.
Goal-setting is really important for kids with ADHD, so be sure to include the positive aspects of puberty. Things like getting their license, having more responsibility or earning their own money at a part-time job.
4. Lean into books and other materials.
There’s so much out there on this subject — and you can find it on YouTube channels, podcasts, books, websites and social media. Try to preview the resources before sharing them to make sure they’ll be appropriate in terms of age and maturity level. (Note: Some of the following suggestions are geared towards parents, some towards your preteens and teens, and some towards the whole family.)
- 14 Talks By Age 14: Essential Conversations to Have With Your Kids Before High School
- Guy Stuff: The Body Book for Boys
- The Girl’s Body Book
- Puberty Is Gross But Also Really Awesome
- American Girl books: The Care and Keeping of You, The Feelings Book (for girls and guys)
- The Puberty Podcast
- Talking to Teens
- Your Teen with Sue & Steph
- ChildMind Institute
- Always Changing & Growing Up series (there’s one for boys, one for girls, and a co-ed option.)
- Nemours KidsHealth: What Boys Want to Know About Puberty; Am I Normal? (girls and puberty)
5. Connect with helpful people in your circle and community.
Remember when we indicated above that you don’t have to do this alone? Raising kids takes a village, and you can most certainly reach out to that village for this stage of parenting too. Here are some people who can also talk to your preteen about puberty, or give you materials to use and guidance on how to do it:
- School (guidance counselor, teachers, etc.)
- Social services
- Healthcare providers
- Support groups
- YMCA and similar organizations
- Mentors/parents who have older kids with ADHD
- Grandparents or other trusted relatives
6. Institute an open-door policy.
Let’s face it — these kinds of conversations are complicated. There’s no one-size-fits-all, as every child will experience puberty differently. The answers won’t always come easily. Don’t give up! Think of this as an opportunity to build trust and rapport with your child — which can actually strengthen your relationship. It’s short-term discomfort for long-term gain.
That said, don’t rush through the process. Pace yourself, and break down the material in ways that make sense (much like “chunking” — an approach to learning that works well for kids with ADHD). Take lots of breaks and give your child a chance to think about each topic. And give them a chance to ask questions initially, or later.
Above all, let them know they can come to you any time to discuss something they’re confused or curious about. There’s no deadline here; growing up is a (lifelong) process. What’s most important is giving them opportunities to explore, investigate and understand. And letting them know they’re loved at all ages and in all stages of life.