Ep 138: Decoding Boys

Cara Natterson, author of Decoding Boys, shares her insights into raising boys--from silent phases, to gaming, to late bloomers, to pornography use, as a pediatrician Cara has seen it all!

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Full show notes

We think we know how puberty works. Kids grow hair everywhere, wake up 2 feet taller than the night before, and suddenly start wanting to go on dates to the mall without any supervision! But there’s actually a lot to puberty that most parents don’t know about. Did you know, for example, that puberty can begin as early as age seven in some girls? Or that male puberty is almost totally contained to testicular growth for the first few months or even years?

If we don’t properly learn about puberty, we can’t teach our kids what they need to know. During this confusing period, teens can use all the help they can get. By making an effort to really understand all the ins and outs of puberty, we can give them the tools to get through adolescence and out to the other side.

Our guest this week, Cara Natterson, is here to clue us into all the latest research about coming of age. She’s a pediatrician, consultant, speaker, and bestselling author of multiple books on parenting and health! Her latest book is titled Decoding Boys: New Science Behind the Subtle Art of Raising Sons. This book sheds light on tons of misconceptions about puberty, especially for young men.

Cara drops all sorts of fascinating facts and helpful tips in today’s episode. She explains why some teens go quiet during puberty, and how you can break through this barrier to connect with them. We also discuss how puberty starts much earlier than we usually think, and get into the psychology behind why teens act impulsively.

Breaking Through to Silent Teens

One day, our kids are telling us everything, and the next, they’re totally shutting us out. Many kids enter puberty and become totally guarded, feeling like they can’t open up to anyone about all the changes they are experiencing. Oftentimes, parents think they should reciprocate this distance, and just let teens ride it out on their own. However, Cara advises parents to do the opposite.

According to Cara, letting teens drift too far away sends them the message that you aren’t interested in hearing about their struggles–even if you were just trying to respect their boundaries. This can be dangerous, because it allows a wall to grow between the two of you. Then, later down the line when it’s time for a serious talk about drugs, dating or sex, you may find you can’t break down the barrier that’s formed from so much silence.

There’s no easy way to initiate contact with a teen who’s been avoiding you, especially when you need to discuss uncomfortable, puberty-related matters. However, if you don’t brief them on these subjects, their only sources of information will be their friends and the media–which can both be bad influences. In the episode, Cara emphasizes the power of perseverance when it comes to striking up these conversations. She breaks down why it’s valuable to have discussions about puberty early in kids’ lives, and explains about how you can talk with teens instead of at them.

It’s important to have these chats early because, as Cara and I discuss, puberty starts earlier than most parents think.

The True Puberty Timeline

Most parents assume that the puberty process begins around age thirteen or fourteen. They believe this because this is when they witness kids starting growth spurts, periods, and hairy armpits. But Cara busts this misconception, explaining how puberty starts around nine or ten for boys and as early as seven for girls. A lot of the time we don’t notice this because we don’t physically see it happening, but their hormones and brain chemistry have already started to change.

Cara explains in the episode that puberty has begun starting earlier and earlier over the past thirty to forty years. Research is still being done as to why this is, but Cara points to changes in diet and lifestyle as contributing factors. And although the timeline is starting younger, she clarifies that it still moves at the same speed. This means girls still get their periods around age twelve and boys develop deeper voices around age thirteen.

One interesting topic Cara touches on is how to help a late or early bloomer through this tricky period. In the episode, Cara and I delve into the ways this delayed or accelerated growth can continue to affect people far beyond puberty. We also talk about when it’s time to see a pediatrician to check out your teen’s puberty progress, and whether or not you should allow your teen to take estrogen or testosterone to kickstart the process.

As aforementioned, Puberty often starts with changes in the brain. In the episode, Cara and I get deeper into some teen psychology. We talk about addiction, and touch on why teens seem to act without rational consideration.

Understanding the Teenage Brain

Teenagers brains are still developing. That means that even though they often want to be treated like adults, they’ve still got a ways to go before they get there. Cara and I discuss how these developing teenage brains work differently than adult minds, and why teens are more inclined to get into trouble than grown men and women.

When teens experience some kind of stimulus or face a decision, their brain sends a signal to two different parts of the brain: the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system is the center of the brain’s emotional thinking, while the prefrontal cortex helps individuals make rational, informed choices. For teenagers, the limbic system responds almost three thousand times faster than the brain of a fully grown adult. This means that their first impulse is always to act on their emotions, leaving rational thinking to come later.

How can we keep teens from acting without logic? In the episode, Cara elaborates on some methods for teens to incorporate rational decision making into their lives. Oftentimes, the solution is as simple as breathing in and counting to ten before acting. If they can wait for the rational part of their brain to catch up, they can make wiser decisions.

Cara and I also talk about how the teenage noggin is in the process of pruning it’s neural pathways., preparing for adulthood. This means that your teen’s brain is deciding which habits and patterns will be important to stick to as they move into adult life, and which one’s they should dispose of. We talk extensively in our interview about how this often leads to addiction problems or starts teens off on bad paths that they continue on for the rest of their lives.

In the Episode…

Cara’s extensive knowledge on puberty is life saving when it comes to understanding your teen’s experiences. In addition to the topics mentioned above, we also cover:
  • The body image insecurities that young men face
  • How to help your kids avoid peer pressure by taking the blame
  • What aspects of gaming parents should be concerned about
  • How pornography effects boys’ ideas about sex and intimacy
Although puberty is scary for teens and parents, educating ourselves can help. If you enjoyed listening to Cara speak you can find more of her work at worryproofmd.com. Don’t forget to share and subscribe! Happy listening and we’ll see you next week.

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Cara Natterson
Cara Natterson
Pediatrician, Writer (Guy Stuff. The Care and Keeping of You/American Girl), consultant, mom... I give out lots of advice that I desperately try to follow.
Ep 138: Decoding Boys
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