Cara Natterson, MD & Vanessa Kroll Bennett, THIS IS SO AWKWARD: Modern Puberty Explained

Cara Natterson, MD & Vanessa Kroll Bennett, THIS IS SO AWKWARD: Modern Puberty Explained

Zibby interviews Cara Natterson, MD, and Vanessa Kroll Bennett, authors of THIS IS SO AWKWARD: MODERN PUBERTY EXPLAINED. They discuss their motivation for writing the book, aiming to empower parents, teachers, and other adults in guiding kids through puberty. The book covers more than typical puberty topics, delving into sports, eating behaviors, and mental health. Zibby praises the book’s comprehensive approach and its usefulness in her own parenting. Both authors emphasize the importance of open, judgment-free conversations with kids about puberty and its challenges. The interview concludes with their advice for co-authoring a book and the unique challenges and rewards it presents.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Cara and Vanessa, to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained. I love this cover so much, by the way. This is amazing.

Author: Thank you. We’re so happy to be here.

Author: Thank you.

Zibby: Yay. This book is so great because it’s really written exactly for someone, for me, my age. I’ve got my kids. It’s so great because you’re like, when we were young… I’m like, yes, when we were young, this was the way it was. I feel so seen. I’m like, do they know what I’ve done with my kids? Congrats on the book. Why write the book? Why you two?

Author: Oh, god. There are so many answers to that question. I think we’d start with the fact that we spend all day every day together on Zoom across the country thinking about, talking about, and helping people through the process of raising kids through puberty. This is our ultimate mission, is to help people feel knowledgeable and empowered to tackle this stage of life, which is messy and overwhelming and confusing. We want to help people feel like, okay, I can do this, and I can do it with some joy and some laughter, instead of feeling like, oh, god, I’m victim to this time. We want people to feel really confident.

Author: We wanted to write to a much bigger audience than parents. It’s every adult who has a kid between eight and eighteen in their life, so teachers and coaches and health-care providers and mental health providers and aunts and uncles and grandparents and everyone. This has been a really important piece to our journey, is recognizing all the people who are heavily invested in the safety and health of kids.

Zibby: That actually was something that surprised me about the book. It was not only about acne and whatever. You have all the important things, all the touchstones that we all know.

Author: Acne is very important.

Zibby: Just all the regular things you think about with puberty. You have things like what to do about teen sports and kids’ sports and overspecialization and how that can be a detriment and other things that maybe you don’t think about as much, and especially your whole chapter — we could talk about sports. The whole chapter on eating behaviors, disorders, all of that I found so interesting. Every kid has to eat, so how do you handle it?

Cara Natterson: The way to think about how we went about choosing topics to cover was we took the narrow definition of puberty, which is just the path through sexual maturation — that’s an easy set of chapters to cover. My background is a pediatrician. Vanessa’s background is a puberty educator. It’s a very easy path to go through. Then we pulled the lens back and looked at the much broader definition, so all of the other things that the reproductive hormones impact. Estrogen and progesterone and testosterone impact your mood. Your mood impacts your friendships and your family dynamics. How do you write a book about puberty and how puberty has changed without talking about friendships and romance and sports? Those hormones impact your joints and impact overuse injury. All these things that people never tethered to puberty before, we’re like, hi, we’re here to tell you they’re all connected.

Vanessa Kroll Bennett: Also, I have four kids. Cara has two kids. They’re all between thirteen and twenty, all six of them. We were thinking about our lives. The book is totally based in science and data and research, but it’s also informed by us as human beings and as parents. We were thinking about, god, what are the things day to day that no one thinks about as puberty but are really big deals? The youth sports overspecialization chapter affects both of us deeply and very personally. I come from a background of coaching girls in sports. We talked to people. We were like, do we keep this chapter? Do we cut this chapter? Everyone was like, no, keep it because everyone deals with this. Nobody thinks of it as a puberty thing, but it really is a big part of adolescence and supporting kids throughout adolescence. That’s just one example. We sat down, and we thought about everything. I’m curious, Zibby, were you shocked at any of the chapters or just pleasantly surprised by certain topics coming your way?

Zibby: I was just pleasantly surprised that it had a wider breadth than I expected. Although, the whole time, I kept thinking, I need them to write a menopause book called This Is So Depressing. Maybe you could do a follow up for the parents of the teenagers or something like that.

Vanessa: We’re on it. We probably won’t call it This Is So Depressing because we’re trying to stay optimistic and constructive.

Cara: I might be a little further along in that journey than Vanessa. She’s got some serious foreshadowing happening every day on Zoom.

Vanessa: It’s all before me. It’s all laid out. It is. That’s another part of it. So many people who are caring for kids in puberty are themselves on their own roller coaster of physical and emotional changes. If you’re down at the same time or you’re up at the same time, it all intersects and affects the things you say, the things you shouldn’t have said, all of the regrets.

Zibby: Which one of you was it who, when your son asked you about rape, you were just like, oh, it’s —

Vanessa: — Me.

Zibby: Oh, that was you.

Vanessa: It was four kids getting breakfast on a Saturday morning. I cannot believe, as an ardent feminist, that that was how I responded to the question of rape. I’m still like, oh, my god. My mea culpa is that I wrote about it in the book with such brutal honesty. That’s how it is. You’re just getting by every day and doing your best. We all screw up. Cara and I screw up every single day multiple times a day.

Cara: Maybe just once a day.

Vanessa: Oh, no, mine is multiple times a day. Zibby, my thirteen-year-old lost his backpack last Friday and called me. I was screaming at him on the phone with all of his friends around him, so it was doubly terrible. Then he got in the car. I was like, “I am so sorry. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. It’s not that big of a deal.” He was like, “It’s okay, Mom. You were allowed to be angry.” It’s in the humanity of it. It’s in the mess-up and the go back and the repair of it where we really do our best work with kids in puberty.

Zibby: I had that too. I messed up the bus situation yesterday. They were on the bus, off the bus. I forgot to do the form right, blah, blah, blah. One of my kids got off the bus and just was glaring at me. I was like, “I know. I know. I know.” He’s like, “But you weren’t –” I was like, “I know. I know.” It was a whole thing. Then again this morning when we were all calm, I was like, “Listen, I just want you to know again that I am so sorry. I felt so terrible. It will never happen again.” It probably will, but whatever. I hope it won’t. You have to fill out these forms every day. I think a big piece of parenting in general, regardless of age, is owning up to your mistakes and seeing that we’re all human beings. I love that you put that in the book. Every little itsy bit that you put in about your own journeys was relevant. I was hoping we could go back to the eating disorders chapter. You even had all these really helpful Q&As about, what are you supposed to say if you notice somebody avoiding a food group, if you see sneaking food wrappers and all of that stuff? which I used to do as a kid. I have to be honest. I was hiding Hershey’s Kisses under my bed and stuff. I was like, what should my mom have said? What should I say if this happens?

Cara: We can give all the data in the world. We can set up the problem until the cows come home. If we don’t give solutions and we don’t help people understand different ways through — there’s not one way through, by the way. Depending upon the family setup, depending upon the personalities in the house, depending upon age, depending upon all these different factors, health and all the social dynamics, everyone’s path through, even through eating issues, which feel almost very binary — here’s how you avoid them. No. There are different conversations. There are different levels of sophistication. There are different self-esteem drivers. Is your kid on social media or not? That’s really going to change the way you have the conversation. The reason that we wrote this book together, other than the fact that we were looking for an excuse to spend yet another five million hours together on Zoom, was that my background and my strength is data and science and health and medicine, and Vanessa’s superpower is understanding how to translate that into conversation, into action. We’ve now had the opportunity to work together for years, to have a podcast together, to run workshops together, and to get direct feedback. My direct feedback started when I started seeing patients almost twenty-five years ago. This is a very different and very important form of direct feedback when you put suggestions out into the wild.

When it comes to eating issues, the numbers are staggering. They are staggering. When you look at body dissatisfaction, if you think that this is a predominately female issue, you are wrong. This has no gender. Half of all body image issues belong to people who identify as male. Half belong to people who identify as female. If you are on the gender spectrum, your risk of having an issue with how your body looks, whether it’s body dysmorphia or eating disorder or whatnot, is significantly higher than if you are not on the gender spectrum. If you start digging into some of the specifics about what kids do and why, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at all the downward pressures in our society and all the drivers of that behavior. That leaves the adults in these kids’ lives feeling very helpless, and you’re not helpless. If you are looking for SparkNotes of this book, it’s one sentence. Engage in conversation. That’s it, without judgement, without shame. Eating and body image is the very best example of engaging in conversation and beginning to understand how different kids that are in your lives feel about what’s going into their body or how their body looks.

Vanessa: It’s also the perfect example of places where we all bring our own stuff into the conversation. A lot of us struggle with body image stuff as well into adulthood. Many people still struggle with eating disorders well into adulthood. This is an example where our own baggage can be really difficult to leave behind in our conversations with kids. One of the things we like to talk about in the book — it’s really, really critical with respect to body image stuff. We can have our own internal monologue. Zoë Bisbing, who ran The Full Bloom Project and now has an Instagram account called @mybodypositivehome, talks about registering your own disgust when you look at your kid. Do not self-edit when you look at a kid and think, oh, my god, that’s not how I thought their body was going to turn out. Oh, my god, they’re taking another helping of food when I just bought them new pants. Be really honest internally about how you are reacting to your kid’s changing body. Just don’t say it to your kid. Say it to your partner. Say it to your therapist. Say it to your best friend. Find a safe place to let that stuff out. Leave the comments to your kid as neutral, positive, supportive, empowering. There are so many parts of puberty, not just body image, where what we’re thinking in our own minds is exactly what we don’t want to say to a kid. We have to make space somewhere in our lives for that internal monologue to come out because eventually, it will come out somehow, somewhere, sometime. It will come out sideways if we don’t give it a chance to come out in a safe, constructive way.

Cara: If you need a rationale for why you might approach a conversation that way, just flash back to your own transformation, which by the way —

Zibby: — Must I?

Cara: Oh, yes. Welcome to your past.

Vanessa: We’re here for you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m in a safe space.

Cara: Yes, exactly. Yours went twice as fast as this generation.

Zibby: That was another thing about the book that I was like, oh, gosh, really?

Cara: Yes.

Zibby: It’s going twice as slow. I have four kids. I’m like, oh, my god, that’s the rest of my life.

Cara: It is.

Vanessa: Basically, yes.

Cara: I always say I wanted to call this book Puberty is like Taffy. Everyone else hated that title. I love that title because it is. It has just stretched and stretched and stretched. I want you to flash back to your own puberty, your own body transformation. A, it felt like forever, and it was half as long as it is now. B, you had no idea where it was going. You didn’t know how tall you were going to be. You didn’t know how curvy you were going to be. You didn’t know how your hair texture was going to change, or your hair color. You didn’t know if you were going to have zits everywhere or no zits anywhere. You had no idea of any of it. That is their same reality. When it comes to things like body image, sometimes we adults approach things as if they should have clarity that it’s all going to be fine in the end. First of all, that’s really a very destructive approach. We don’t know where any of it is landing. Second of all, their brains don’t really care what’s happening in another five, ten, fifteen, twenty years. That is not their mental orientation. As you start to unwrap layers of your own onion on all of this, our advice is very strongly to leave those layers behind when you get into conversation with kids. As you start to think about your own experiences through and your own biases, you have to transport yourself back to that moment where you didn’t know how it was going to all work out because that’s what they’re living.

Zibby: No fun. I did appreciate, by the way — you mentioned that we had no idea how tall we would be and all that stuff. I loved your calculator, the equations of how tall. I was like, no way. I’m sitting there. I grab my phone. I’m like, calculator.

Author: It’s what makes me popular at a cocktail party.

Author: Do you like this line? My mother always says to me, “You were supposed to be taller. You were supposed to be 5’9″.” I’m like, “I’m really sorry. I don’t know what to tell you.” That’s the thing. Even with the little calculator, we can end up — all of our expectations, our hopes and dreams of how they’re going to turn out, it may just not happen that way. We spent a long time formatting that in the book, actually, because we wanted to make sure it was just right, the calculations looked just right.

Zibby: It was perfect. I took my daughter to the Barnes & Noble in Union Square the other day. They have a Starbucks there. She was ordering a Refresher, which we’ve gotten all summer long. I don’t know if your kids drink those.

Author: Oh, my god, my daughter’s obsessed with Refreshers.

Zibby: The barista was like, “Just so you know, there’s as much caffeine in here as in an espresso.” I was like, “What? There’s caffeine in Refreshers?” Literally, my daughter, who’s ten, looks up at me, and she’s like, “That’s why I’m so short.” I was like, “No, you’re short because I’m 5’2″. You’re not going to be tall. I’m sorry. You’ve had four Refreshers or something.” Maybe it’s ten Refreshers. I don’t know.

Author: My daughter drinks those weird dragon fruit, coconut milk — there’s caffeine in those?

Zibby: Yeah.

Author: Oh, my god. She has so much energy already, so I think we need to cut back on the Refreshers.

Zibby: I’m like, this explains a lot. I flashed back to all the bedtimes. Anyway, it’s nice that you had some predictive stuff in here.

Author: A little quick math.

Zibby: A little quick math. How do you prepare kids, then, while they’re in the throes of it and things are changing? Now it’s slower. There is no way to predict. It’s hard for grown-ups to handle things that are out of our control. I know you address a lot of things in this book with great scripts, which I honestly found very, very helpful. How do you make kids who are so young see that they’re really just — they can’t really understand. You know what I’m talking about? That they’re part of a bigger context of life. This will pass. They’re not going to believe you.

Vanessa: It’s so hard for kids when you’re like, don’t worry, it’ll be fine. They don’t know what that means. The hardest part about talking to kids about puberty when they ask about the when is that often, the answer is, I don’t know. That’s so hard as a parent to say to a kid. I don’t know. I wish I had the answer for you, but I don’t know. We’ve gotten those questions from hundreds and hundreds of kids in workshops. We’ve gotten those questions in our own homes and everything in between. Depending on the topic, there are some signs. A super common question is, how do I know when my daughter is going to get her period? That’s a really, really common question. The short answer is, I don’t know, but there are some signs. There are some goalposts along the way. With other stuff, kids will say, when am I going to grow? Everybody else is taller than I am. When am I going to grow? Again, the short answer is, I don’t know. The longer answer is, we can talk to your pediatrician. We can check in. There may be stuff happening that we don’t know as lay people, but a medical professional could actually give us some more information. Sometimes that’s just a nice form of reassurance. I think that the most interesting part is being along for the ride in the discomfort with kids. That shows them two things. One, that you love them no matter what, whether they’re growing and blooming and glowing up or whether they look the same as they did a year ago and are feeling crummy about it. The second thing is life is uncomfortable. When we look at puberty in the context in the larger panoply of life, learning to sit in discomfort and uncertainty is actually a really great skill to develop. If we can be their companions in it, I think that’s really powerful for kids.

Cara: I have a couple of side comments. Let’s see if I can remember them.

Vanessa: Always. Did you write them down?

Cara: No. My menopausal brain is really struggling right now. Side comment number one is the three words “I don’t know” are a tremendous cred builder. Don’t ever go to a doctor who never utters those words. If a doctor says “I don’t know,” that’s a smart and thoughtful doctor. I don’t know. I’m going to get to the bottom of it.

Zibby: I’d really prefer that they know, but okay.

Cara: Of course, but there is this need —

Vanessa: — I don’t think you’re making Zibby feel better, Cara.

Cara: There’s this posturing need to always know everything and always be right. It’s not that you can’t look in the ear and go, yeah, it’s an ear infection. There are bigger questions in life to which the answer is, I don’t know. I’m going to get back to you. I’m going to do some tests. I’m going to do whatever. “I don’t know,” when you’re the adult in the situation, that’s cred building. What that says is, I do not pretend to have all the information. I will validate whatever I tell you. What comes out of my mouth is reliable. You can trust it. It’s not to say you should answer it, always, that way, but I don’t want people to be afraid of that phrase. That was number one. Number two — oh, come on, brain. Number two was, as Vanessa was talking about the different scenarios of kids who prompt you with questions, there is, of course, the gigantic subset of kids who don’t ask a thing. They don’t ask. They don’t engage in conversation. Even when you prompt them, they don’t answer. They might grunt. They might just walk away. They might just shut the door. We don’t like the word normal because normal confers judgement. However, this is a time when I want to emphasize that that is totally normal. Kids who shut you out can also be kids who are struggling with other things. It can be very hard to distinguish. It is a very, very typical developmental stage for kids to shut their parents out of the equation.

If you ever want to be reassured by your kid’s silence, just put your ear up to their door and listen to them laughing and chatting with all their friends. You can be like, okay, we’re good. They’re just being age appropriate with me. That just is an invitation to work harder to get into conversation. It doesn’t mean lecturing them, except when it’s really an emergency and necessary. What it does mean is constantly circling back with the prompt. Hey, I’m going to ask you again. I’m going to keep asking because I love you. I’m just curious about this one thing. If they don’t engage and they don’t engage and they don’t engage, it’s like when they were babies and they needed to try a new food ten times before they didn’t spit it out anymore. Conversations around all of this very tricky stuff, that’s that. You have to try them. Then the third thing — I can remember! I did all three. I’m so excited. The third thing is that you want to baby step this. Even if you feel like you’re starting a little bit late, don’t go in big and heavy and get to really juicy stuff first. Toe your way into these conversations. Start basic. If a kid rolls their eyes at you, great. That’s confirmation that they are way past that part of the conversation. You want to work your way into it. It’s really never too early to start having open conversations with kids. Never too early. It’s just the content of those conversations that’ll shift. Okay, that’s it.

Zibby: Did you expect, when you started your podcast, that it would be as huge as it has become? Was this a surprise? How do you feel about it? What do you think?

Cara: Can you tell the bat mitzvah story, please?

Vanessa: Okay, I’ll tell the story. We are thrilled that so many people find the podcast meaningful and valuable to their lives. I will tell you that on the bar mitzvah circuit, we are celebrities. I was at a bar mitzvah. It was actually a family bar mitzvah. My brother, Nick Kroll, who is a super famous comedian, was on one side of me. My husband, Roger Bennett, who’s host of the “Men in Blazers” podcast, was on the other side of me. A pack of women ignored my brother and ignored my husband and came up to me and were like, “Are you ‘The Puberty Podcast’? We are so excited to meet you.” I called Cara, and I was like, “Okay, we’re good. We’ve made it.”

Cara: I will tell you one other thing about our podcast. Twenty-five percent of our listeners are male, which tells us that people write off men as not caring and not being involved in these conversations with kids, but we are here to tell you they care. They want to be involved. They want to be a part of it. For people listening who are shouldering the burden themselves and feel like their partners or ex-partners or coparents are not in on it, they can do this. It’s awesome for the kids in our lives if they are included. Yes, we are the puberty revolution, Zibby. You have to come on our podcast.

Zibby: Sure, I’d love to.

Cara: We can share all of our painful past stories. That’s originally what the podcast was going to be, people coming on and telling their own puberty stories. Then we would go from there. We decided that people wanted a lot more science and a lot more advice and maybe less trauma, so we shifted the concept.

Vanessa: They still want a little trauma.

Cara: They do like the trauma.

Zibby: From a book perspective, what is your advice for people who want to write a book with a friend or a colleague and don’t know how to really do that in a good way?

Vanessa: I love this question. I love this question so much. This is Cara’s tenth book. For those of you who don’t know, Cara wrote The Care and Keeping of You series. She updated the first book, wrote a bunch of others. She also wrote Decoding Boys and a bunch of other amazing books. This is my first book, so slightly different experience. It was an incredible experience writing together. I learned so much from Cara. She’s a brutal editor, brutal in the best way. My philosophy is, why say something in three words when you can say it in twenty? We had so much fun together. For people who are thinking, I can’t possibly do it, Zibby, you’ve shown the world that nothing is impossible. You have taken the entire publishing and book world on your shoulders and are like, here, let’s just go forth and give it a shot. I will tell you the joy of writing this book together was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. We did it in a summer on Zoom for three months straight.

Cara: Ditto, ditto, ditto. I think it deserves a little mention that when we sold our book, the contract had us turning it in the first week of September of 2023, so now, basically. That would put it on bookstore shelves in the very runup to a presidential election. The last book that I published, that’s when I published. I published in February of 2020. Great time to publish a book. Pandemic aside, it was all political news. I said to Vanessa, “I’m not going to do that. We know everything we want to write. We live this. This is not us figuring out or doing research. This is us just sharing everything we know. Listen, people do this,” I said to Vanessa, lying through my teeth.

Vanessa: She’s so full of it.

Cara: I said, “People do this. They write a book in three months. It’s totally fine.” Vanessa’s like, “Really? They do?” I said, “Yes, it’s totally doable.” She was like, “Okay, that sounds great.” We turned in in September of 2022 in order to be able to publish now. Only after we turned in did Vanessa say to me, “Is that really something people do? I feel like that was really hard to do.” I was like, “No one’s ever done that.” Our editor was like, “You people are masochists.” It was a three-month brain dump. It was so fun. It was so fun.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I love that. Get ahead of your deadlines. Find someone who is totally in the dark about the process, and drag them through your — .

Author: We tease — one of us is a Google Sheets person, and one of us is a Google Docs person.

Zibby: I am a Google Docs person.

Vanessa: Yes, thank you.

Cara: You need one of each if you’re going to write together because a Google Sheets person, the outlines, the timelines, there’s some structure. The Google Docs is the creative and the ability to bring in story. I’m just saying it’s a great combination.

Vanessa: Zibby, this is what every single morning sounded like when we were writing the book.

Cara: Oh, no.

Vanessa: It was like this. “So I’m in the to-do sheet, and I just want to cross some stuff off our list. Okay, great. Now I’m going to tell you exactly how things are going to go today.” You’ve known me long enough for the last thirty-five minutes to know I am normally someone who’s like, okay, people, here’s how life is going to go. Meanwhile, Cara’s like, here’s how life is going to go. My sister, who I bossed around our whole childhood, was just laughing in the corner that I found someone who is as comfortable directing the future of the day as I am. You know this. When you write about something you love, something that feels so incredibly important to you, that you’re passionate about, that you believe in, anything is possible, including dealing with someone who loves Google Sheets as much as Cara does.

Cara: And when you respect your partner.

Zibby: Our managing editor at my company has all these production deadlines and all this stuff. I literally emailed her yesterday, I was like, “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to need you to put this in Word. Here’s how. This is the date, but it’s all in letters.” I can’t see it in —

Cara: — I can help her translate. I can do that.

Zibby: It’s embarrassing.

Vanessa: BS. You never translate it. You just make me.

Cara: We didn’t have time, Vanessa. We didn’t have time.

Zibby: Somehow, you two pulled it off. The book is great. This Is So Awkward. Congratulations. I’ll wait for the second volume, which I’ll eagerly devour. You can take my title. It’s fine. I hope to see you guys soon. I’m so excited you’re doing the event in Zibby’s Bookstore. Zibby Bookshop. I can’t even get my own thing right. Thank you for coming on. I really appreciate it.

Author: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Author: Thank you so much. So happy to be with you.

Zibby: Hope to see you soon. Bye.

Author: Bye.

THIS IS SO AWKWARD: Modern Puberty Explained by Cara Natterson, MD & Vanessa Kroll Bennett

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