Practicing with Children

Pressing the Red Button: Thoughts on Entering Puberty

by Dena Douglas Hobbs

My family and I went to see Inside Out recently at the movie theater. It was a wonderful film shedding light and wonder on the thought processes of a child. At the end of the movie as the main character Riley turns twelve, her brain gets a new control panel equipped with a big red button. One of the emotions looks at the button and says, “What’s ‘Puberty’?”

Oh, buddy, you don’t want to know…

In our house we have just recently had a child press the big red button. She turned twelve over the summer and like clockwork our sweet, kind, obedient child has morphed into a new being. Or should I say two new beings? Sometimes she is still her sweet, caring, easy self. And then there is her puberty alter ego. The one with all the huffing, sighing, and sarcasm. The one that gets angry for seeming no reason and whose newest sport is making fun of her mom.

At first, I was really taken aback by these changes. Where did this disrespectful child come from? I responded to her frequent eyerolls and biting remarks with punishment. Then one night her Dad, still her beloved, gave me a reality check. “You need to back off,” he said. “She’s just doing what she’s supposed to be doing. You need to learn to take it in stride.”

After letting his comment sink in, I realized her behavior was not so much errant, but exactly what the image of God looks like in her right now. That image is just in a bit of turmoil and upheaval. So for the past few months I’ve been riding the Jekyll and Hyde roller coaster. I ignore the dramatic sighs, I let most of the sarcasm go, only punishing when she is really out of line. And when she is angry I try to just let her have some space.

And the thing is, if I stay calm and patient when Jekyll is done having his turn, knowing this is part of her becoming who she needs to be, I find that Hyde still really wants Mom when she reappears. She wants backrubs and cuddle time. She wants to tell me about all the middle school drama of the day. And she even asks me questions about what in the world is happening to her. Because really, she isn’t doing these things to anger me, she is doing them because that is how she is going to make her change. Even if the caterpillar does not totally understand the chrysalis, it needs that period just the same.

Because as much as it feels like it, puberty is not a mistake or an anomaly of our time. It is a necessary part of God’s plan for our life. These hormone-soaked half-children/half-adults are just as much in the image of God as the rest of us. I don’t know exactly what that says about God, but apparently change is a part of God’s process too.

So for those of you adjusting to the pushing of the red button, take heart. Underneath all the sarcasm and drama, your child still loves and needs you. Maybe more than ever before.

My daughter confirmed this the other night when we were watching old family movies. There was a scene in the clip where she reached out for my hand so I would accompany her as she explored a stream. Taken aback, I said, “O look, that was back when you still liked me.” She looked at me with the strangest face and said, “Mom, I still like you. I am just a teenager now.”

Indeed, my twelve-year-old puberty-laden one. Indeed.

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