Despite going through it ourselves and our children inevitably going through it, talk of puberty is often greeted with a sense of dread by parents. That realisation that our deliciously cute and cuddly kid (Ok ok not always but stay with this just for the sake of contrasts) is heading towards the potentially prickly realms of puberty, can fill us with a tad bit of angst and avoidance. Words like menstruation and pubic hair may not be easily rolling off our tongues in the general parent-child banter of the day. So here are a few thoughts to help us be thoughtful about this phase cause its coming ready or not!
Why shouldn’t we just pretend it’s not happening?
Puberty is an inevitable period of change. It’s when our children start the process of growing into adults. Their bodies and brains are preparing for adulthood and sexual maturity. Emotional and physical changes are happening. These can be exciting and passionate times. These can be confusing and difficult times. These are certainly interesting times! Nothing can or should completely prepare kids for what’s coming. Some mystery and self-discovery are good things. We are not aiming to micro manage puberty. But a bit of prep from us can go a long way to help contextualise, normalise, demystify, allay anxieties and prevent shame associated with the changes and the timing of them. Kids may roll their eyes, act grossed out, appalled and too cool for school but they generally like to be in the know. A 2017 survey, commissioned by Always, showed that 59 percent of South African teen girls wish they had been better prepared for puberty. We can try change those stats.
Talking ‘the talk’
Stereotypical images of awkward, blushing parents with solid eye contact with the floor come to mind when we think of talking about changing bodies and sexual maturity. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way! It can help to think through both our own experience of puberty (which may have ranged from positive to awful) and how we came to know stuff. This will help us manage and separate our own experience and knowledge and help inform how we want to communicate with our kids.
This is a continuous discussion and not a once off intensive tick the box type conversation. And it probably should start earlier than we think. They are knowing things and growing things quicker than we would like to imagine! Puberty can start as early as 9 in some kids and we want to rather err on the side of pre-emptive knowledge in a healthy age appropriate kind of way rather than missing opportunities. If kids are asking questions – answer those questions. Remember we don’t need to be all knowing… we have google for that! Its also ok to say that this kind of conversation feels a bit awkward but that its important and that we can find out information together.
If kids aren’t asking questions, then it’s up to us to get talking but not lecturing. We can use what’s around us as good conversation starters. For example, we can ask if they know what those ads for sanitary pads or pimple products are on about or did you notice cousin Jon’s voice has suddenly dropped an octave? There are some great books around that are written and illustrated in in ways that make them easily accessible for kids (and us). We can use these books in talking about puberty and also leave them lying around for kids to access and explore. Yes of course we are likely to dabble with the depths of embarrassment as we go to places like pubic hair and wet dreams, but rest assured these conversations may even lead to much hilarity and a whole lot of open communication. We need to remember to make space to listen to our kids and not go into lecture mode cause that usually results in automatic switch off from them. We need to he listening to what they are thinking, what they are knowing and what they are thinking that they are knowing.
In terms of a bit of a cheat sheet about what to generally expect when we’re expecting typical puberty, here’s a list of some things that can be happening.
- Weight gain and change in body shape
- Pubic hair growth
- Increased sweating
- Moodiness and irritability
- Penis and testicle growth
- Voice change
- Wet dreams and involuntary erections
- Breast growth
Boys and girls should know what’s happening for each other and themselves. As parents we should not shy away from discussing puberty related issues simply by virtue of our own gender. We can all explore and share knowledge and as long as discussions are managed in a healthy, open, warm and non-shaming way, relationships and positive identities only stand to benefit.
Whilst puberty is inevitable and part of growing up, how we manage it in our homes is not. We can provide an empathic and warm knowledge base that makes lots of room for giggles and questions. In opening communication, we can try our best to help our kids come out the other side of puberty in a healthy way and hopefully we make it out equally unscathed too!