“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 clitoris, which is positive. I think it will slowly change, but it’ll be slow.
Some people are happy to teach a three-year-old what a clitoris is; others think: “Let’s call it a vulva and later I’ll teach them the finer details.”
I encourage parents to use correct names for genitals. I’ll say: “You can call it a foo-foo, but then give it the anatomical name. If you’ve started off saying vagina, great. But how about now you teach them that the vagina is the inside part and the vulva is the outside part.”
How can we become more comfortable talking with our kids about puberty, sex and bodies? You’ve previously recommended that parents share stories with their kids of when they were growing up – and you’ve almost trademarked this idea of using your everyday voice™
It’s about being a step ahead. Puberty takes a long time to happen. My son’s 12, so I’m not talking to him about shaving because facial hair won’t happen for maybe two or three years.
You can take the 2-minute When should I talk to my child about puberty? parent quiz.
Try to look for teachable moments that are sort of saying to you: “Hey, talk about me!”
Answer a question like: “What colour is sperm?” in the exact same voice as if your child had asked you: “What’s for dinner?” Make it feel like an everyday conversation. With my kids, we talk about so much that there’s no shame or discomfort about bodies. They see bodies as just another thing and genitals as nothing to be ashamed of. Just talking about genitals and bodies in an everyday way breaks that cycle of shame.
With your Play & Learn Paperdoll series you created culturally diverse, disability-friendly, anatomically correct paper dolls. It makes so much sense because young children can be so receptive to those ideas and open to difference. So how can these paper dolls help parents talk about bodies, gender, gender stereotypes and correct terms for body parts?
Usually paper dolls have got the genitals smoothed over or they’re dressed in underwear. Here each character comes with a penis, a vulva and a no genitals option, so they could be intersex – or your child can draw on some genitals.
I created these dolls because parents were asking for ways to start or continue conversations. If your hands are busy and you’re both doing things, it helps with talking naturally. If you’re sitting at a table and you ask: “Which doll do you want to colour in? Is that a girl or a boy?” You could pick a doll with short hair and a penis, put him in a dress and go: “This is Mary” or “This is Fred, but Fred wants to wear a dress today. Is that OK or not?”
You can also use the dolls to break gender stereotypes – you know: boys can’t wear dresses; boys can only play with boys; girls can’t play with trucks, only with dolls.
Having the genitals included normalises them. Many parents have said to me: “My child didn’t even comment about the genitals!” Kids don’t bat an eyelid.
How does talking openly about puberty lead to talking about things like healthy relationships, love, sex and consent?
As kids get older, they become more curious about those things. You can tell them: “The body’s smart. It can start creating sperm or you can start ovulating. Then changes happen in the brain and you start thinking about sex more so you’ll want to go out and do it, and to have or to help make a baby.” Hormones are chemical messengers that kickstart puberty.
My daughter is 15. We talk about how as she goes through puberty she might have sexy thoughts or think about a loving relationship. She might like boys, girls or someone who’s non-binary, or she might have an attraction to no one. And that’s all OK.
The benefit of us living in a sexualised society – with movies and TV shows that are talking about sex all the time – is that we can use that to our advantage. They’re great opportunities to share your values about the love, sex and relationships stuff that pops up. You can go: “What do you think about that? Do you think that’s what people really do?” The media makes our job as a parent easier if we can hijack all of that and turn it to our advantage.
Some cultures have rites of passage for young people. Some parents even throw a puberty party for their child. What ways can parents celebrate their child becoming an adult?
I’m a bit of a slack one. We didn’t do a celebration. Parents can celebrate the first period as a step into womanhood, though we don’t have something similar for boys or penis owners. Some will buy jewellery, go out for a celebration dinner or have a mum-and-daughter afternoon tea or something. Some kids don’t want that attention thrown at them.
In The Parents’ Guide To Puberty, you wrote: “12- to 15-year-olds consistently say that their parents are the most important influence when it comes to making decisions about sex, even more than their friends, teachers or the media.” That’s impressive! We know that talking openly at home about sex and relationships topics strengthens the parent-child connection. But why else should parents talk openly with their children about puberty?
When I started this whole sex-education thing, it was all about teaching my kids information. But as they got older and I began understanding more about sex ed, I realised that it’s about them getting the message that they can talk to me about anything. That’s what matters.
I’m a big advocate of talking about puberty so that as your kid is working out who they are and where they fit in in the world, if they have you there watching their back, they’ll still have their ups and downs but it makes life easier and makes adolescence a smoother process.
Think back to what growing up was like for yourself. Very few adults have positive memories.
I’m not the best person for talking about feelings – I’m not a touchy-feely parent – and we don’t have deep, meaningful conversations. I love toilet humour: if someone farts, I’ll giggle. So my sense of humour gets incorporated into our conversations at home.
It’s about good enough sex education. It’s about having lots of talks. You don’t have to get any of them perfect or right. But when they all add up together, you get the result of a kid who’s able to make smart decisions about love, sex and relationships.
You can make lots of mistakes. Lots of times in our house I’ll try to start a conversation and it goes absolutely nowhere. Or my kids roll their eyes and go: “Oh Mum, do you have to talk about that?” But I’m still growing up kids who will be able to make smart decisions.
And you know what’s even better? When they have kids, they’ll be just like me. I’ve broken the cycle of shame for my kids, which means their kids and all of their kids’ kids will grow up without shame about sex. That’s pretty bloody powerful. It’s exciting! Gives me goosebumps.
Cath Hakanson is the founder of Sex Ed Rescue and author of The Parents’ Guide To Puberty, The Sex Education Answer Book and the Play & Learn Paperdoll series of Friends, Families and Superheroes. Follow her on Facebook. Read more of what Cath has to say in our blog post Tough questions, quick answers and true-to-life paper dolls – and watch her in our Outspoken / Speak Out video Puberty & bodies