“Your body is preprogrammed to change”: talking with kids about puberty
Kids can be scared about the changes they will go through during puberty – and parents can be scared to talk openly with them about it all. Here Sex Ed Rescue founder Cath Hakanson explains how to use your everyday voice even when you’re speaking about sperm, how to talk deodorant and sex with tweens and teenagers and how to bring up genitals, gender and gender stereotypes with younger kids while colouring in anatomically correct paper dolls…
Ideally parents would talk with their kids about puberty before puberty hits. But you’ve said that the biggest mistake parents make is leaving it too late…
CATH HAKANSON Yes, a lot of parents wait until their kids hit the age when their parents spoke to them, which was when there were some signs of puberty, or until they notice that their kid’s friend is taller, which acts as a visible reminder to talk to their own child.
A lot of kids are scared of puberty because it’s this sudden thing they learn at school or when their parents start talking with them: that their body’s going to morph into this adult body.
So talk early and make it fun. When my daughter was four, we read Hair In Funny Places by Babette Cole for six months every night – and for her puberty was this great adventure.
What can parents say about puberty to a younger child?
At the supermarket you can hand your child a packet of tampons or pads and go: “Can you pack this away? Do you know what it is?”
Because puberty often starts early now, you can get books for kids from the age of seven that provide simple, factual information.
For a lot of four- or five-year-olds, being in the bathroom and discovering that Mum has blood coming out of her vagina freaks them out because when they have a cut it’s a disaster. But this is a great opportunity to say: “That’s blood. It comes out once a month.”
See sex ed as being part of everyday conversation. But don’t get caught up about getting it right. Say simple stuff at a level that your child understands and keep on repeating it.
What can parents say about puberty to an older child?
If I want to read a book about puberty with my 12-year-old, he’s likely to say: “Not interested.” So instead I gave him a funny book that was bordering on a bit lewd and crude, and it really made him happy to read it. Graphic novels that talk about puberty can be great.
When kids hit that age where their friends’ bodies are starting to change, it becomes about teaching them how to care for themselves. My son insists on wearing the same shirt to school for the whole week, but now that he’s going through puberty the shirt is getting really smelly. Some kids struggle with the changes. It can take ages to get them to understand that they have to start doing things differently to look after this new body they’ve got.
So the conversations are more like: “I bought you some deodorant. How about you put it on in the morning?” or at the end of the day: “Have you had a shower? You’re a bit on the nose, a bit smelly” and if they say: “I’ll go put some deodorant on” you can say: “Deodorant on a dirty body just smells worse. It’s best to put it on a clean body.”
Some parents worry that talking about puberty will sexualise their child…
Yes, and many believe that if we talk to kids about sex, they’ll go and do it – whereas all the research tells us that the kids out there doing it are the kids who haven’t had discussions with their parents.
Sometimes parents can have a fear of their kid no longer being a sweet, innocent child.
But most parents don’t want their kids to make the same mistakes they made or to be alone and frightened as they go through puberty and adolescence. I remember what it was like not being able to ask questions about my body. Kids have crazy questions like: “Which hole do I put the tampon in?” or “Is it normal to have hair in my armpits that’s straight?”
Talking about puberty doesn’t sexualise kids. It just gives them knowledge.
During puberty, kids experience mood swings and develop sexual feelings and attractions. So it’s empowering for them to learn that puberty will rewire their brain
You don’t need a degree in brain science to talk about the brain stuff. When my 15-year-old daughter tells me something a friend did, we’ll go: “That was probably a stupid decision. But hang on: she’s going through puberty, and as the brain is pruning all these connections, sometimes it throws out the part that helps you to make smart decisions.”
I tell her: “Your brain is still developing. The brain you’ve got now isn’t the brain you’ll have as a grown-up. By 17 you’ll be more mature, switched on and able to make those decisions.”
The brain stuff is really important because it lets kids understand themselves a lot better.
In your list of 10 things that your child needs to know about puberty, you say that your child’s body is preprogrammed to change, but it’s a lucky dip as to when and how – and that these changes don’t happen overnight…
Kids do want puberty to hurry up. They want to know: “Is there a pill? Can I go to the doctor to start puberty?” Explain that it will happen when their body says it will happen. There’s always a kid who’s first and a kid who’s last.
Kids can feel like they’re the only one going through these changes, so let them know that their friends are as well and that you remember what it was like. Normalise puberty!
Talking about boys and puberty centres around pleasurable things like erections, ejaculation and wet dreams. With girls it’s about things like periods and preventing pregnancy – not so much fun. How can we talk more positively about girls, puberty and pleasure?
We didn’t grow up learning about pleasure, so we find it difficult. There’s still a shame about masturbation that we all grew up with. Masturbation and orgasms don’t feature in a lot of books on puberty, and pleasure has only started to come out recently as a topic. I’m seeing more mention of the