Your adolescent is (or soon will be) in the midst of intense physical changes, especially during the early years of this period. Virtually all systems in the body are involved, but those affected by new surges of hormones will generate the most attention and concern. Three issues will dominate the landscape:
"What's happening to me?" If your adolescent has not received some advance warning about the changes of puberty, a friendly and factual huddle about this subject will be most reassuring. Even if your teenager already appears quite mature physically, the impact of hormones and rapid growth on emotions, energy and various parts of the body may not be clear to her — or you. Your input and, if needed, her physician's can calm many concerns.
"Do I like this body?" Adolescents are keenly interested, at times seemingly obsessed, with body image — both their own and everyone else's. As a result, comparisons with others are always in progress. Whoever holds the winning ticket in the physical sweepstakes — the most attractive features, the knockout figure, the well-sculpted muscles, the athletic prowess — will nearly always reign supreme where teens gather. But even those who would seem destined to appear on a future cover of People magazine will struggle with doubts about their appearance and worthiness.
No matter how well assembled your teenager might appear to you and others, from her perspective someone will always seem to have a better package. Negative comparisons with that person — sometimes amazingly unrealistic — are likely. And an adolescent with an obvious physical deficit may be cruelly taunted by peers and develop a lifelong preoccupation with appearance. Accepting one's body and taking appropriate care of it are important tasks to be accomplished during this transition to adulthood.
Your job here is a delicate one. Your teenager will need generous doses of reassurance that worth is not dependent on appearance, even when the culture around her says otherwise. You will have to endure the fact that any positive comments you make about looks, temperament, accomplishments or inherent value may not be met with expressions of thanks. It may appear that what you say doesn't count, but it does — in a big way.
One challenge for parents will be to find the fine line between making constructive suggestions and being a nag. Your adolescent's preoccupation with looks may not necessarily translate into specific actions to improve them or to appear pleasing to adults. In fact, at times the opposite will be true. The current "dress code" at junior high, for example, may decree an extremely casual, semi-unkempt look in order to appear "normal." As will be discussed later, within limits, generational differences in clothing and hairstyles may not be worth a family battle.
But sometimes you may need to take the initiative. If he suffers from acne, he'll need your help and some professional input to bring the blemishes under control. If she is clueless about clothes, Mom or a savvy relative may need to help rehabilitate the wardrobe, a project that does not need to be expensive. If weight is a problem, tactful efforts to move the scale in the right direction may improve your adolescent's self- image and general health. These efforts should be positive, stressing healthy foods and activities for everyone in the family without focusing all the attention on one person. If there is a major problem related to food — whether an unhealthy obsession with thinness, or weight that is far above the norm for an adolescent's height — professional help should be sought from a physician, dietitian, counselor or all of the above.
"Will I respect this body?" Whether or not they are comfortable with their physical appearance, adolescents must decide how they will care for themselves. Lifestyle and habits established at this age may continue well into adulthood, and it is never too early to establish a healthy respect for their one and only body. Prudent eating habits can be modeled and encouraged, and you can also point out that exercise isn't merely something to be endured during PE class but is also worth pursuing (in moderation) for its own sake. Unfortunately, some teenagers who harbor a mistaken belief that "nothing can happen to me" choose to engage in substance abuse, sexual misadventures and other risk-taking behaviors that could establish long-standing negative habits or leave permanent physical (not to mention emotional) scars.
Your work in this arena should have begun years ago, and if this took place, your child's concept of respect for his body will have roots dating from the preschool years. Even so, reasonable vigilance, good role modeling and forthright and open conversations about risky behavior will need to be on your agenda until your adolescent has completed the transition to full independence.