This is Part 2 of my Growth and Puberty Series
You’ve heard that growth skyrockets during puberty. Your child likely has heard about this too. Still, the changes that occur during puberty can be quite a transition for everyone. Worry that our kids’ growth isn’t on the right track is normal for everyone involved. So it pays to understand what growth typically looks like for boys and girls during puberty.
When families don’t understand what’s going on and fail to communicate, puberty can be a “perfect storm” for body dissatisfaction and the unhealthy habits that typically follow. So today we are focusing not just on growth during puberty, but helping families look at it in a positive light.
What to Expect: Weight and Height Gains
Since your child was 2 or 3 they have been in a slow period of growth, which completely changes at puberty (for puberty timing see this post). Due to hormonal changes, children experience tremendous gains in bone, fat, and muscle. But there are key differences between boys and girls.
As puberty gets underway, girls accumulate fat which is needed to start their menstrual cycle. Initially, girls gain a layer of fat which may give them a rounded belly. In time this fat around the middle is redistributed to the breasts, thighs, and hips to give girls a curvy look. Different than boys, girls peak growth in both height and weight (around age 12) happens in stages, which can make it feel “out of proportion” until they are done growing. It’s very important for girls and parents to understand what is happening so they don’t panic and make an issue of these changes in body shape. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics:
These young female patients, and their parents, often worry that baby fat is a harbinger of impending obesity—usually the deposition of adipose tissue (connective tissue where fat is stored) around the middle is part of normal development. The body will soon redistribute the fat from the stomach and the waist to the breasts and the hips in order to mold a womanly figure.
As boys journey into puberty, they lose fat and gain muscle. But their peak growth period (around 14) occurs later in puberty than girls, and the biggest gains in height and weight occur at the same time. Generally, they trail behind girls about 2 years but continue to grow after girls have stopped. Most girls stop growing at age 16 where boys typically stop ground at age 18-19. By the late teens, boys have about half the body fat girls have and are typically taller.
This chart shows you how much growth accelerates during puberty. Remember each child’s growth rate will be unique. For example, someone who typically grows at lower percentages will gain less than someone at higher percentages.
Consider Your Child’s Genetic Blueprint
A mother shared with me how she mourned the fact that she didn’t have the petite girl she always thought she’d have. Instead, she had an athletic, strong girl who was bigger and taller than average. I’m glad she realized this and didn’t get caught up in fighting against her child’s size.
Each of us is born with a genetic blueprint for the general size and shape our bodies are meant to be. If you are concerned that your child’s growth is off track, check her growth chart. If he or she (generally) has stayed on the same growth curve — even when high or low — that is likely where they are supposed to be (see it explained in this post). But huge jumps or falls can indicate an issue that more attention (I will get into factors that affect self-regulation of food in the next post).
Research tells us that both timing and growth during puberty is under tight genetic control. It’s hard to predict what will happen during this stage and an element of trust is necessary. We will touch on feeding and nutrition in a future post, but it’s important for parents and kids to take control of the right things — healthy habits over slimming down or beefing up.
Kathy Kater, the creator of The Healthy Bodies Curriculum, helps 4-6 graders develop a healthy body image before the peak growth of puberty sets in. Using her “Body Image Building Blocks” she teaches children how to take control the right things with messages like “People become unhappy trying to control something that is not in their power to control… As for looks, it’s best to make the most of who you were born to me.”
Body Satisfaction: Will it Grow or Wither?
Evidence points to the reality that puberty is a vulnerable time for kids (especially girls) to grow dissatisfied with their bodies, which can increase the risk of disordered eating and even eating disorders as shown in the chart below. Consider the 11-year-old girl who doesn’t know that the extra fat around her belly is a normal part of development. She sees her thinner friends and starts to skip meals.
What about the boy who doesn’t understand his growth will come later and eats more to gain muscle and stops regulating his food intake. This may cause him to gain excess weight during his peak growth time. It’s no wonder that half of teenage girls and one-quarter of boys are dissatisfied with their bodies
But when kids understand what’s going on, it changes the game. They can learn the inner-workings of their changing body and how to nurture it. It’s not something that needs to be fixed but taken care of.
Get it Right This Time (Yes That Means You!)
When I was going through puberty many years ago, I had no clue what was going on with my body. Like a lot of girls, I wanted to be slimmer than my body naturally wanted to be, and chose unhealthy weight loss practices to get it there. But by some stroke of luck in my twenties, I started looking at my body — and food — in a positive light. And it’s helped immensely with raising my kids to do the same.
If you’re like me and people in this study, you likely grew up with a negative view of your body too. So there may be some leftover growing pains. Because no matter how much we try and hide these realities — poor body image, restriction/overeating, little to no self-care — kids pick up on it. I know much of this has to do with “mirror neurons,” a network of neurons in the brain that aims to understand the intentions and goals of others. In this You Tube video, Dr. Dan Siegel, best-selling author and clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, explains mirror neurons this way:
Beyond just seeing behavior, we see the intention behind the behavior from the very beginning. That’s how we create the human capacity to imitate behavior.
Take a mom who has tried to keep her poor body image from her daughter. She thought it was working until she finds her daughter, now a teenager, constantly complaining about her body. Parenting expert Ronit Baras explains why on her Family Matters blog:
I think kids are such very special mirrors. They visually project the image of those who stand before them. If you want to see your parenting image, all you have to do is look into your live mirror, your kids.
The answer is to stop hiding and start healing. If it’s not good for our kids, it’s likely not good for us. Instead, share your struggles with your child and what it has cost you, and why you want something different for her than what you have!
If you think your relationship with food and your body needs some work, there are plenty of resources that can help such as the books Intuitive Eating and Body Kindness. Don’t miss my podcast episode with Karen Diaz about Mothers, Daughters, Food and Body Image.
Puberty as an opportunity
So talk to your child about the growth they can expect and why it occurs, how fighting against their genetic blueprint does more harm than good, and the importance of healthy habits in nourishing their growing body. Maybe even use your experience as an example (I recently told Big A about my dieting ways and she was stunned, yet surprisingly understanding).
Most people don’t realize puberty can be an opportunity for families to right past wrongs and realize how truly amazing the human body is. If you accept and take care of it, it will thrive. But if you treat it like the enemy, you’ll spend your life fighting it.
Get the book for girls which includes all the research in this series plus so much more. My Body’s Superpower helps girls going through puberty grow up healthy, confident and strong (book for boys coming next).
Posts Included in the Series:
Intro: 6 Things About Puberty and Growth Every Parent Should Know
1. The Stages of Puberty: What Families Can Expect
2. How to Get Your Child Through Puberty Without Hating Their Growing Body
3. How to Normalize Sexual Development with Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo [Podcast] NEXT
4. Why Puberty is the Ideal Time to Invest in Bone Health
5. 15 Simple and Delicious Calcium-Rich Recipes for the Whole Family
6. Preventing Eating and Weight-Related Problems in Your Child. Project EAT’s Principal Investigator Dianne Neumark Sztainer [Podcast]
7. Seven Things “Always Hungry” Adolescents Wish Their Parents Knew
8. Nutrition from Head to Toe During Puberty (Part 1)
9. Nutrition from Health to Toe During Puberty (Part 2)
10. 8 Ways to Talk to Kids About Nutrition so They Actually Listen
11. 7 Shifts in Tweens’ Behavior Every Parent Should Know About
12. How to Keep “Cultural Faves” From Ruining Your Tween’s Health and Well Being
13. My Body’s Superpower is Here