How to Discuss Puberty with Your Kids
When I was pregnant with my third child, my husband and I couldn’t wait to tell our two daughters, ages 8 and 5 at the time. We explained that Mommy had a baby in her belly and both girls started screaming and jumping up and down with excitement. Then my older daughter got quiet. With a quizzical look on her face, she asked, “How did the baby get in there?” That was the catalyst for our first conversation with our children about the birds and the bees.
Other families may not have such a natural opening to start a discussion about puberty, body changes, and sexuality. But parents must have these honest conversations with their children. Dr. Jasmine M. Reese, Director of Adolescent and Young Adult Specialty Clinic at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, says, “Even if you think they are too young for the topic, they are not. Today’s kids are exposed to so much information so much faster. Television shows are more sexualized and they have access to the Internet. Parents can’t be shy; kids near to hear about these topics from the trusted grown-ups in their lives.”
Here are some tips to help you get started:
Start Before Puberty
Girls typically enter puberty between the ages of 8 and 13. It begins slightly later for boys, between ages 9 and 14 years. “It’s essential to make it clear that bodies changes, and that these changes are perfectly normal,” says Dr. Myeshia Price, Senior Research Scientist for The Trevor Project, says. “By regularly having discussions about bodies with our children leading up to puberty, these conversations won’t seem so difficult and ominous.”
Have Shorter, Easily Digestible Conversations
Don’t expect to have one conversation that covers everything. Talks about puberty and sexuality should be ongoing. “Approach the topics in building blocks, a little at a time so kids can digest the information,” Price says. “Let them know they can always come to you with questions or concerns.”
Use Correct Names for Body Parts
“Educating young people on the correct terminology for body parts is important in terms of raising their understanding of their anatomy,” Price says. “It’s also crucial in terms of empowering them to accurately communicate injuries and health issues that may come up — including in cases of abuse.” Adds Reese, “Using words like vagina and penis de-stigmatizes these words.”
Discuss Online Stranger Danger
Reese says younger children should have restricted access to the Internet, but parents should be direct with older children about the dangers. “Let them know never to give private information to someone online, including photos,” she says. “Explain that people can misrepresent themselves (predators pretending to be peers) and that information online cannot always be trusted.”
Avoid only telling your child information specific to their assigned gender. Instead, give them a broader education that includes information about gender spectrum and different types of sexual orientations. “The separation of boys and girls and the insistence on forcing these discussions into a gender binary is inherently problematic for youth who are transgender, non-binary, or intersex,” Price explains. “It also does a disservice for cisgender young people to only learn about their own bodies.” By being modeling inclusivity, parents help children to understand their own feelings as well as those other people.
Children may be embarrassed if they are the first of their friends to experience body changes, while others may worry puberty will never happen to them. “It’s important to let young people know that this process is different for everyone and that our bodies are unique,” Price says, “but also that puberty happens to everyone.” Adds Reese, “If your child starts to show signs of puberty before age 8 or hasn’t by age 13, do consult with their pediatrician.”
Don’t Negate Behaviors
If we want kids to feel confident about their body and the changes that are occurring, Reese says parents should be promoting positivity and inclusivity. “Parents need to explain consent, body safety, and safe sexual relationships,” she says. “Conversations should be honest and open-ended.”
Not sure what to say? Many books and online resources can help parents approach this topic with their children (see link below). If your child is uncomfortable talking to you about certain issues, suggest they speak to another grown-up you trust or a medical professional. Reece advises stepping out of the room for a few minutes at the end of a child’s visit with their pediatrician so they can ask questions without you present.
Most importantly, let your child know you love them and that they can come to you at any time. “Parents need to be their children during the learning process and to help to answer any questions and manage emotions that may come up,” Price says.
For more information:
RANDI MAZZELLA is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, teen issues, mental health, and wellness. She is a wife and mother of three children. To read more of her work, visit www.randimazella.com.