The Birds and The Bees
It’s not like he’s actually going through puberty NOW. As in today. He’s 11. And a half. In middle school. Almost the youngest in his class. But I know it’s coming. And I need to get my pediatrician parent self together and be ready: for the attitude (arrived already), the body changes (none yet), and the increasing desire for independence regardless of demonstration of readiness for responsibility.
Alright, now I’m sweating. Imagining my son and daughter growing up is so bittersweet- can you relate? It’s exciting to see the people they are becoming but it hurts my heart to say goodbye to the sweet innocence of little kids. There’s no one right way to approach dealing with the process, but I think there are a few general notes that should be hit. I’m not being preachy here, I promise, just trying to share what I’ve seen and experienced in 20 years of pediatric practice.
If you wait ’til kids are going through puberty to discuss sexuality, body changes, and hormones, then I think you’ve waited too long. The unknown is frightening on a good day, and when changes are happening to your body that you can’t control, that’s gotta be terrifying for a lot of kids. So I suggest starting to discuss all types of body parts and processes when kids are in grade school or as soon as they start to ask.
Personal story here- my father is a physician and always used anatomically appropriate names for body parts. No “Willy” or “Susie.” This took the “intrigue” out of body parts and processes and made them be (almost) just like any other conversation. Certainly not taboo. I think I was the only middle school kid I knew who didn’t erupt into giggles at the word “penis.” Same thing with sexuality. It’s important not just to describe what happens to the body, but that it’s normal and ok to discuss.
If your child hasn’t brought up the topic in any way by the time they are around 10 years old, then you need to do it. Break it up into small, understandable bites of information, but get the conversation started, and set the expectation that these kinds of talks between parent and child (be clear to your child on who his/her “safe” people are) will happen somewhat regularly. And be good to your word.
Fine tune your listening skills.
When kids are little, it’s not hard to appear engaged in what they’re doing, but as they get older it gets a little trickier to pick up the subtle messages that your child may want to send, but isn’t sure how. Older kids want to feel respected and valued and there’s no better way to validate them than by listening to what they want to tell you, and being interested enough to ask follow up questions. All smartphones down.
Know your stuff.
This is a Captain Obvious statement, I know. But I mean this in many ways:
Know the sequence of what happens physically in puberty: in boys, scrotal and testicular enlargement, then pubic hair growth, then growth spurt and so on. In girls, breast buds appear first, then pubic hair growth, and menarche(first period) occurs typically about 2 years after the start of puberty.
Know what your kid is up to. There’s been a lot written on this. Look through your child’s social media and text messaging. Pay attention to what they are reading and watching. If you can, have your child’s friends over to your place more than your child goes over to someone else’s house: there’s no better way to do a pulse-check of what’s up than to be in the same space as your child and his/her friends.
Don’t forget to say “I love you” out loud.
And remember to tell your child you love them when you set your “rules.” They certainly won’t want to hear it, but deep down know that they want and need the structure.
You know what? Tell them “I love you” all the time for no reason at all. Adolescence is hard enough on its own, so a hefty dose of love and encouragement from you might make it a little bit easier. Whether you like it or not, you are an authority on this topic in your child’s eyes, so for the love of awkward teenagers everywhere, be a good one! Your advice and real, pediatrician-approved literature on this topic will be an infinitely better source of information than a Google search will ever give. I know you can do it, even if you’re sweating the whole time, like me.
Not sure what to say? Here are some talking points to get you started..
Body changes – teach your child what to expect and about the responsibility of how to take care of their body as it makes changes (shaving when the time is right, using extra soap, deodorant, pads & tampons, managing aggressive urges, etc.)
Mood swings – let them know what they might expect to feel, and how to appropriately handle it.
Masturbation – emphasize that it’s normal, but must be done in private.
Peer pressure – empower your child to know that no friend can make them do anything they don’t want to. Let your child know that you are there to help if they ever have questions or concerns, and maybe even ask a responsible, slightly older friend or cousin to help them through it.
Frequently remind your child that they can come to you with anything they might be experiencing. Remind your child that everyone goes through this, and even you went through it. Don’t forget that there are lots of kids’ books on this topic, written for various ages and stages. After your chat, leave a few laying around for your child to pick up and start doing some research of their own.