Babies Come from WHERE?!

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Talking to Your Kids About Puberty

You might be the CEO of a major corporation. You might be a dynamic public speaker. You might be the savviest Fortune 500 businesswoman to ever take the world by storm.  But when it comes to having “the talk” with your child, even the most intelligent and competent among us can be reduced to a blithering, stammering mess.

You know “the talk” I’m referring to. In fact, you probably remember when you first heard it. For me, it was riding in the car on the way home from school with my mother. Suddenly, and without warning, she launched into a diatribe about the impending changes that my 11-year-old body would most likely begin to experience in the coming year or two. Fortunately, I had obtained a “bootleg” copy of “Are You There God? It’s Me

Margaret” from a friend’s older sister, so the entire concept wasn’t foreign to me—but the conversation was still uncomfortable.

Many of you probably had a similar experience. That awkward moment when your parents started throwing out names of body parts, where they go—and where they don’t! But what if “the talk” didn’t have to be so uncomfortable? What if it wasn’t a big talk at all, but a series of conversations that begin in the toddler years? No, we aren’t suggesting that you go into explicit detail with your three-year-old on how she came into being. But by answering the questions that naturally arise openly and honestly when your children are little, you will set the stage for the bigger, more important conversations to happen organically, and with a minimal amount of embarrassment.

Critical Communication

You might think that you don’t have to worry about your child hitting puberty until the early teen years, but the truth is that the onset is occurring at a younger age than you may realize.  The average age for boys to hit puberty is 10, while girls begin to experience changes as early as the age of nine.

How do you know if your child is nearing this developmental milestone? The first physical signs are testicular enlargement for boys and breast development in girls. Girls may also exhibit moodiness and may be prone to emotional outbursts. However, if you are planning to wait until you see these signs to brooch the subject of puberty with your children, you may want to think again.
“If you haven’t opened the doors of communication with your children prior to puberty, they aren’t going to magically open at puberty,” cautions Dan St. Romain, Independent Educational Consultant, and Behavior Consultant at AHISD.

According to St. Romain, not establishing those lines of open, honest communication with your children in the early years is one of the biggest mistakes parents can make. Why? Because then when you do have to have “the talk” it becomes this big, awkward moment instead of a natural progression of your relationship.
“You want sex education to be natural rather than a ‘thing,’ explains St. Romain. “When you say, ‘okay, now we sit down and talk,’ it becomes a ‘thing.’ In your attempt to not make it an issue, you have just made it one.”
“There doesn’t have to be a ‘set’ conversation to talk about body changes,” agrees Dr. Renee Cevey, a local pediatrician who began discussing the topic with her own kids when they were around the age of four. “It’s really just a thing that should come up naturally here and there in day to day conversations.”

Where To Begin

Children are naturally curious creatures, and even a three or four-year-old is going to notice differences between their bodies and the bodies of their siblings or parents—and they will ask questions. How you handle those questions is important. If you respond with embarrassment, giggles, and words like “pee pee,” or “hoo hoo” you are communicating your own discomfort and your child will pick up on that.  Instead, answer your child’s questions about his or her body parts in a straightforward manner using the correct anatomical terms.

“Start early with the correct terms for body parts,” advises Dr. Kristen Plastino-Arnold, Associate Professor in the department of OBGYN and UT Health Science Center of San Antonio.  “It is much easier to say ‘penis’ to a five-year-old than a 15-year-old because a five-year-old isn’t embarrassed by those terms yet.”

However, that doesn’t mean that at the first sign of curiosity in your preschooler you give him the lowdown on how babies are made. Simplicity at this age is key. For example, when your three-year-old asks you why his new baby sister doesn’t have a penis, a simple “because girls are born with a vagina,” will suffice.  If you are pregnant and your five-year-old wants to know how the baby will get out (or how it got in there in the first place) this isn’t the time for a graphic description of sex and the birthing process.
“Use age appropriate terms and concepts,” advises Dr. Plastino, “and address only what they ask.”

As your child begins to near the average age of puberty onset, the conversations should have already begun to happen with more frequency. If not, comments on the noticeable growth spurt of a friend, or remarking on a sexually suggestive billboard or ad can be a casual way to get the ball rolling. If there is a maturation chapter being taught at school, use it as a way to foster discussion at home.
“Don’t wait for your child to bring it up,” Dr. Plastino recommends. “Talk early, often, and seize those moments.”

The Late Bloomer

Children mature at vastly different rates and where one fifth grade boy may have taken an obvious interest in the fairer sex, his classmate might still be sticking marbles up his nose. Knowing and understanding your child’s individual development is crucial to understanding how much information to disseminate and when.

“You have to understand your child’s social and emotional development,” says St. Romaine. “Parenting is all about timing and, if it’s the wrong time, you risk shutting that door.”
If you do have a late bloomer, that doesn’t mean that you refrain from giving him age appropriate information because, let’s face it, his peers are probably giving it to him already.  Kids want to fit in and, if your child’s friends are beginning to develop at a faster rate than he is it can be awkward. Girls especially can experience insecurities because breast development is so obvious. Reassure your child that everyone develops at his or her own pace, and then introduce some steps to do now to prepare. Things like wearing deodorant, developing a good skin care routine, and, for girls, wearing a training bra can go a long way in the self-esteem department of the late bloomer. Conversely, they can also work for the child who develops at the early end of the spectrum to address the issues of body odor and acne and early breast development, as some sports and training bras can create a flatter profile.  But whether your child is an early or late bloomer, once they start exhibiting signs, there is a definite rate of acceleration.

“Pubertal changes don’t happen all at once, but they do happen at a set rate,” explains Dr. Cevey. “You have a couple of years between the onset of breast development in a girl, for example, before you have to worry about her getting her period.”

Finding Your Comfort Zone

Regardless of how close you are with your child, or how openly you communicate about other important topics, there are some parents for whom the topic of sex is miles outside of their comfort zone. That’s okay. Again, just be honest. Chances are your child will appreciate your candor. It could alleviate some of his anxiety about the conversation as well.
“Tell your child that you aren’t great with talking about it, but that it’s very important that you do,” says St. Romaine.
Dr. Plastino suggests taking the conversation on the road.

“Some of the best conversations happen in the car,” she explains. “It’s easier because you aren’t facing one another.”
You also need to let go of the idea that dads talk to boys and moms talk to girls.
“Just because you are the same sex doesn’t mean you are the one who has to present the information,” says St. Romaine. “Figure out which parent has the more open relationship with the child. And it may not be the same parent for each child.”

Your pediatrician or health care provider can be your best friend during this time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and allow your child to have some one-on-one time to visit with the doctor and ask any questions that he might feel uncomfortable asking in front of you.

The main thing is to find what works for you and employ it. Avoid judgments or “freak outs,” and let your child know that he is free to come to you with any questions. Above all, never label a question or a process as “bad” or “dirty” or “shameful.”

“Puberty is a natural thing that all of us go through and we don’t want them to be embarrassed about their bodies,” says Dr. Cevey. “We want them to be comfortable coming to us to ask about any change they notice.”

Bonny Osterhage is a San Antonio freelance writer and mother of two boys.

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