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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

“Living with a brain under major construction”: how This Is So Awkward helps parents handle puberty

5 boys and 4 girls of different ages and races are lined up wearing T-shirts and Oomla shorts
Free range: puberty doesn’t last just a few years – it can span the ages of 7 to 21. Image: modelling OOMLA shorts

The pace at which kids’ bodies, experiences, attitudes and relationships change is mind-boggling. Were they not just sitting in a high chair smearing puréed food all over their face?

It’s on us to keep up with their rapid social, emotional and sexual transformations while

honestly discussing what’s actually happening

– from This Is So Awkward by Dr Cara Natterson & Vanessa Kroll Bennett

Fun (obvious) fact: 100% of people go through puberty! “And almost every single adult looking back on it cringes,” paediatrician Dr Cara Natterson told us. “What happens in puberty – the experiences, traumas, joys – informs people’s lives essentially forever.”

No pressure, then, to be there for your child during this developmental stage when they are “living with a brain that is under major construction”.

Two American mums who have lived to tell the tales – and they tell them well! – are Cara Natterson and Vanessa Kroll Bennett. They’ve even created a one-stop-shop puberty company, Order of Magnitude, which includes the newsletter The Awkward Roller Coaster, the teen-underwear/socks brand OOMLA and the upbeat Puberty Podcast in which they enjoy sparky, assured conversation with each other, cross-examine professionals and are open about how they found it shepherding their own children through adolescence.

Before they did the rounds of American TV shows to discuss their flying-off-the-shelves book This Is So Awkward – Modern Puberty Explained, we caught up with the very dynamic duo…

Vanessa Kroll Bennett, in a blouse and with shoulder-length hair behind her ear, smiling

Vanessa Kroll Bennett (pictured right) Ask someone to close their eyes, and they can go back to puberty and those moments that helped define their relationship to their body image, genitals, romantic relationships, even their mother. Puberty is the turning point, an inflection point, for so many people.

But what if those memories don’t have to be traumatic, sad or cringey? What if we could help people make puberty joyful, exciting and funny and inform their life in wonderful ways?

Cara Natterson, with long hair and wearing a thin necklace, collarless jacket and V-neck shirt, grinning

Cara Natterson (pictured left) And if we could help parents guide their child in a less frightened, more positive way…

Vanessa I have 3 sons and 1 daughter in some stage of adolescence, and not one fits any stereotype of how kids feel or act according to gender.

There’s a deprogramming we need to do. During puberty girls get gendered: they’re said to be moody, unpleasant, mean. Meanwhile we’re trained into this societal assumption that teenage boys don’t feel things. Cara’s book Decoding Boys says that during puberty boys go quiet. We assume they don’t need or want to talk to us – but they do!

Underneath it all, all adolescents are going through the same confusing, tumultuous, overwhelming, exciting experience.

Cara Puberty is not just a physical transformation – the biology, hormones and emotional and social shifts are all entangled.

On how modern puberty might surprise you

Cara Often parents ask me: “Is this normal – these boobs, this pubic hair, the lack of a growth spurt?”

The average age of puberty onset is now between 8 and 9 for girls, and starts when they develop breast buds. For boys the first sign is testicular enlargement and penile growth, which now appear on average between ages 9 and 10. It’s normal for kids of all genders to be early or late – the range is quite large! Some start at age 7 and others may not have any pubertal development until age 12, 13 or 14. That’s a really big span.

Puberty used to be a time of life when you would cringe for 2 years and you were good.

Vanessa Now it can be over a decade in a kid’s life, between the ages of 7 and 21, and it’s so complex that you have to kind of get a PhD in all this scientific, practical and emotional stuff to take care of your child.

How do we make kids going through puberty feel better about themselves? How do we address kids’ low self-esteem, poor body image and shame around changes in their anatomy, genitalia, breast development, body odour and body hair? The answer is: by giving the adults who care for kids more information.

On how to talk openly with your child about puberty

Vanessa Any conversation takes practice. It’s like a spiral that gets more sophisticated and complex as time goes on. So you scaffold up to the harder stuff. Start small and simple, don’t lecture and do a whole lot of listening.

A triangular sign against trees with the caption "Under construction" and a drawing of cogs in a someone's head
Image: José R Cabello

Cara Talking about anything once falls on deaf ears. Twice: maybe they get a piece of it. 100 times and you’re probably good. But remember: a conversation is two ways. If it’s one way it’s called a lecture. That doesn’t work.

Vanessa You can say: “This is hard for me. My heart is racing, I’m uncomfortable – but this topic is so important that I’m going to get over my discomfort.” Kids appreciate it if adults acknowledge their nervousness. It’s a great entry point to get into these conversations.

On why it’s important to talk openly with your child

Cara Because if you don’t, someone else will – it might be the internet and Dr Google or some 12-year-old on the bus.

Vanessa The best person is the person who loves them more than anything, who wants to understand what’s going on in their heart, mind and body. That doesn’t mean we’re going to get it right or do it well – but we’ll do it from a place of love and best intentions.

Learning how to have hard conversations with your kid about bras, erections, vaginal discharge or anything like that is a training ground for having lifelong conversations on all sorts of tricky topics.

On how to talk about pleasure

Vanessa Sex ed lets boys or people with penises know that there is pleasure to be had in their sexual experiences, yet we often teach about the reproductive aspects of the vagina but not about the pleasure aspect of the clitoris.

Chalk drawing of a clitoris on the pavement below 2 British phoneboxes with "Call me clitoris" caption and two older people walking by
Sex-ed street art strikes again: Clitorosity

So the most important thing the parent of a child with a vulva can do is let them know there’s a part of their body whose only job is feeling good when it’s touched. It’s an incredible gift, a crazy secret.

As Peggy Orenstein says in her book Girls & Sex, boys go into sexual experiences expecting pleasure while girls go in hoping for a pain-free time. That is devastating. One would hope that everybody is expecting mutual respect and pleasure.

Cara Studies from the 1960s identified that girls play with an end goal of satisfying others and boys play with an end goal of satisfying themselves: “I’ll bake a cake for you” vs “I’ll build a tower for me.”

If you let your brain take a journey and go: “Where does that form of play for a 3-year-old lead in terms of a sexual encounter 15 years later?” it’s interesting to see how these gender stereotypes play out over time.

I wonder if that drive is part of what formed the basis of our stereotypical sexual dynamics. And if that’s why in classes taught exclusively to boys, the focus can be on self and pleasure.

On having Nick Kroll, creator of the puberty cartoon series Big Mouth, as a brother

Book cover from 1970s book What's Happening To Me? An Illustrated Guide to Puberty
The 70s classic by Peter Mayle

Like brother, like sister… Images: @nickkroll/Instagram

Vanessa During sleepovers Nick, my other siblings and I would pore over the drawings in the book What’s Happening To Me?, which in the early 80s was pretty risqué. Not having our parents breathing down our necks allowed for openness and humour, though our mom was very upfront about bodies and sexuality. Nick’s work is the soul-baring expression of his youth and all of his emotional baggage.

On how puberty overlaps with other sex-ed topics

Cara Sex education should happen in parallel between home and school.

Sex ed is so impacted by political heaviness, and it varies depending on your location, the kind of school your child goes to, if teachers are trained to teach it or they’re brought in.

The gigantic holes in the curriculum are holes that parents cannot afford to not fill. Our kids are telling us they need us to – because they’re consuming content that fills the holes. They’re on social media, watching shows, communicating with each other – they’re hungry for the information.

When parents see their kid developing into a mini adult – but with the brain development and decision-making lagging so far behind – they can outsource sex ed to the school or they can choose to embrace this sex, body, emotional and social education and start engaging their kid in conversation.

We hope our quest to flip all of this positive and make it more fun, or at least palatable, will help parents start to put their toe in.

Vanessa In some ways sex ed isn’t about sex at all. It’s about health, hygiene and information people need to know about their body and other people’s bodies – and it’s really about skill building. If we think about what makes up a healthy human being and a healthy relationship, it’s about understanding your moods and reactions, building the skills to communicate, empathise, navigate difficult moments.

Think of adolescence as an opportunity for your child to build increasingly complex skills to get through life and apply them to a family relationship, a romantic relationship, a sexual relationship.

I love the idea that we – the adults in our kid’s life – fill up their backpack with these abilities and put them out into the world confident that they can pull out a skill or tool when they need it.

On how these experts’ techniques land with their own kids

Cara You take off your professional hat when you come home and you’re just the parent. I’m doing the best with all the information I have, but my kids will tell you that I screw it up all the time. I have gotten puberty things wrong and a million-and-one parenting things wrong. In my house it’s: “The cobbler’s children certainly have no shoes.”

Vanessa We’re very open about our own parenting fails.

My instinct is to talk, pile on questions, add more thoughts and dive in. But this work is actually about closing our mouths and listening better. That has made me a better parent.

My kids have a real sense of humour about having a mother who works with sex-ed stuff. So when I said to my 17-year-old: “Your body language is telling me that something’s going on” he was like: “Mom, can you leave your Puberty Podcast crap at the door? I’m not interested in having this conversation.”

We have to try stuff out as parents. Sometimes our kids call us on being really not subtle, not cool and blowing it. And sometimes they talk to us and are open and excited.

We try our best. We keep trying.

Cara Natterson is a paediatrician, Vanessa Kroll Bennett is a puberty educator, and both are writers, podcasters and entrepreneurs. Follow them on Instagram at @spillingthepubertea

Some of our favourite tips from This Is So Awkward

Leave your baggage at the door

Listen (don’t just talk)

Step slowly into tricky conversations (give your child just a few pieces of information; admit when you don’t know something; own your nervousness)

If communicating one way doesn’t resonate, pivot and start again. Once your child realises you’re not shying away from the topic, they will talk – or at least listen – more

Take do-overs (when you make a mistake, go back and repair it; be sure to explain why; let your child mock you for being fallible). The do-over has no expiration date…

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