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    HomeHealthYour 9-year-old’s moodiness might be puberty. Yes, already.

    Your 9-year-old’s moodiness might be puberty. Yes, already.

    Puberty begins earlier than most people realize, a fact both nerve-rattling and not particularly new. Data published between 2010-2012 revealed the average age girls show the first signs of puberty is between 8 and 9 years old and for boys between 9 and 10, which means that we’ve collectively spent the last decade overlooking the new normal.

    In fairness, the very first physical changes in boys — exceptionally slow penile and testicular growth — can be hard to spot when they cover up and seek privacy, as so many this age do. Breast budding in girls tends to be more noticeable, but strategically worn clothing can help obscure that development. It turns out that the most universally recognizable sign of the foray into puberty isn’t physical at all: It’s moodiness. Cue the eye rolls and slamming doors.

    Depending upon a kid’s personality, temperament, biology and environment, mood swings can be dramatic worn-on-the-sleeve emotions, or they can present as straight-up silence. Girls generally, though certainly not always, tend to wield those moods out in the open, laughing or crying or venting at a louder volume and more frequently than their younger selves did. Boys — again, not exclusively and not always — become quiet, or at least quieter and sometimes angrier, as they head into puberty. It’s critical to include silence along with eye rolls, shoulder shrugs and drama, in the universe of mood swings.

    Parents often ask us: Why does my 10-year-old act 14? It’s because they probably have the hormones at 10 that you expected them to have at 14. If we’re freaking out about it, imagine how the kids feel. When we teach kids about their transforming bodies, we ask 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds whether they’ve ever had a reaction wildly disproportionate to the situation at hand, and 100 percent of them say yes. Then we ask if they like how this feels, and the response is a unanimous no. Mood swings can feel confusing, uncomfortable even shameful — sometimes simultaneously. As potentially stressful as this may be, it’s our obligation to care for the kid staring us in the face (or hunched over their phone in the corner of the couch) by readjusting our expectations of when adolescent behavior will hit.

    Science is most useful when coupled with relatable guidance, which is probably why people love to hear that the puberty scholars are on the receiving end of glares and groans just like everyone else. The only difference is that we know our kids (and ourselves!) are riding the hormone roller coaster without a seat belt. A few suggestions:

    Kids can’t always help their moods. As much as it seems like they are purposefully acting like jerks, cut them some slack and give their hormones credit for driving the mood bus. Testosterone and estrogen steer the course through sexual maturation, aided and abetted by a large supporting cast of other hormones. These hormones don’t just rise slowly and steadily, reaching new adult levels over time; rather, they surge and plummet almost aggressively in tween and teen bodies. Over time, the brain gets used to estrogen and testosterone and supporting cast of other hormones; and kids learn to modulate their reactions, too. But at the start of puberty, before most of the adults in their lives realize what is happening, the sassy or silent (or both) tween can feel prisoner to their responses.

    That said, people often ask us how to tell the difference between the mood swings of puberty and those of depression or other mental health struggles. This can be hard to distinguish, but the best clues lie in persistence (moods, especially down ones, that don’t improve after a few days), intensity (are these particularly intense mood swings, the likes of which you haven’t seen before?), and adjacent changes (changes in appetite, sleep patterns or general energy levels). When in doubt, don’t be the diagnostician — instead have someone trained in mental health help make the call.

    Don’t meet fire with fire. Yes, we might lose our cool when faced with a ranting or door-slamming or sobbing adolescent, but when we meet them at that level we get nowhere. Rather, it’s on us to model what it looks like to take a pause and regroup. Our favorite technique is also the simplest: steady deep breaths. Not only do they slow our thinking and cool our temper, building time for empathy to seep in, but they also signal to the kid a form of co-regulation. And so even when faced with the temptation to snap right back at a shouting tween, pausing allows for the presence of mind to say: “It’s clear you’re upset. I’m going to leave the room for a few minutes. When I come back in maybe you’ll be ready to talk about this.”

    Recognize that as parents we will mess up. Again and again and again. But that’s okay, because when we own it, apologize for our own overreaction and take a do-over, we’re showing kids there is always a way back. We are literally slowing the car on the roller coaster tracks, allowing everyone involved to see the situation more clearly. Adults also need a lifeline back from overreaction, showing how one (with help) can climb out of the deep well of mood swings. “I’m really sorry I lost it with you. I should have taken a beat before opening my mouth because my reaction was way outsize to the situation.”

    Creating connection with kids happens not only when they understand they are capable of weathering uncomfortable situations, but when they can also trust their caregivers to come back and own their mistakes. We demonstrate that true connection lives: not in perfection but in the fallibility of our humanity.

    Cara Natterson is a pediatrician and author; Vanessa Kroll Bennett is an author and puberty educator. Together, they are co-authors of “This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained” (Rodale Books, October 2023), host the Puberty Podcast, and run Order of Magnitude, a company dedicated to flipping puberty positive. Cara and Vanessa can be found on Instagram and TikTok @spillingthepubertea. Perhaps their biggest cred, however, is that between them, they parent six teens.

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