Parents ask me a lot of questions about how to talk to their children about puberty. Let me see if I can develop some information on this topic.
At least half of students in a recent study say their parents never talked to them about sex or puberty. For students whose parents brought up these important topics, the conversation lasted less than 10 minutes.
That’s a problem. The internet and friends expose teens and children to a lot of misinformation about body image and sexuality. Separating fact from fiction is a critical parental responsibility.
Unfortunately, your child will rarely, if ever, ask you for “the talk” about puberty. This means that you, parents, are responsible for initiating this potentially awkward conversation.
Keep this important point in mind: a discussion about a child’s body changing is not one and done. This is a series of conversations that should begin much earlier than with the onset of puberty.
What I say next may surprise you. The best time to begin bringing up the changes in a child’s body is during toddlerhood. That’s when parents should teach their young children the correct names for body parts, including their genitals. Beginning to name these body parts can make future discussions more natural.
As children move on to preschool and early-school age, you can discuss “good touch” and “bad touch.” This is also a good time to talk about where babies come from.
You can begin to explain puberty to children who are prepubescent – between the ages of 6 to 9. That’s when they are usually curious and willing to listen and learn.
Once puberty starts, the conversation can be more awkward, especially if their friends are experiencing changes they are not. (Or vice versa.)
Talking about puberty while riding in a car may ease the awkwardness since there is not a lot of looking at each other while you chat. It is also helpful if parents show some vulnerability by sharing their own experiences with puberty.
Privacy is also important when discussing puberty. Children need to understand that they shouldn’t share anything related to their own or other’s sexual development on social media. This could lead into a conversation about the importance of respecting the privacy of their bodies and those of others.
The differences in how boys’ and girls’ bodies change is part of the puberty conversation. Parents of girls need to share what happens to boys and boys to know about the changes in girls. All children should have mutual respect for each other and how their bodies are changing.
Finally, parents, please do not tease your child who is going through puberty about their physical changes. Just be matter-of-fact in your conversations and provide honest and thoughtful answers.
Hopefully, tips like these will mature your knowledge of how to discuss puberty with your child.
Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.