Having ‘The Talk’ With Your Child: When and How to Talk About Puberty
Bras, body hair, acne, sex, shaving, periods—kids go through many hormonal and developmental changes during their teen years and often have many questions. Here’s how to broach these topics with your children.
Parents of adolescents know that kids this age tend to be self-conscious, easily embarrassed, and not especially interested in talking with their mom or dad. But kids go through major hormonal and developmental changes during their teen years and it’s vital for them to be able to talk with a parent or trusted adult about what’s happening to their bodies. To help you have these conversations with your child without feeling awkward, we asked Ann Lagges, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist at Indiana University Health and co-chief of the Mood Disorders Clinic at Riley Hospital for Children, for guidance on when — and how — to broach these topics.
When does puberty start?
“There is a lot of variability in when you see signs of puberty — like breast development, body hair, and body odor — but the average age is around age 11 or 12,” says Dr. Lagges. For girls, these changes are a heads-up that menstruation is imminent — and your signal to talk with your child about what’s coming. “You don’t need to talk about it too early, but these conversations should happen by age 10 because you don’t want your child to be surprised,” advises Dr. Lagges.
When should you discuss deodorant?
When you sense body odor, that’s your cue to explain the rationale behind deodorant. “As kids hit puberty, their oil glands go into overdrive, which means they may start to smell and can’t skip showers,” says Dr. Lagges. “Though a lot of kids don’t like having to do extra hygiene maintenance, other kids will make fun of them if they smell, so I encourage parents to stay on top of that with kids.”
When should you address acne?
Teenagers’ active oil glands tend to clog pores and cause breakouts, so if your child starts struggling with acne, help him pick out a facial cleanser, and explain why his skin is different now. “From a hygiene standpoint, it’s healthy, and from a social standpoint, you don’t want your child getting teased or feeling embarrassed about his body,” says Dr. Lagges.
When should you talk about shaving body hair?
“When your child starts growing body hair, you may want to outline the difference between society’s expectations and things that are truly necessary for hygiene,” says Dr. Lagges. “Talk about what your cultural values are and approach it as you see fit. For instance, some parents are more into the idea of shaving legs and wearing makeup — and others are less into it. Discuss what makes you and your child comfortable. You want to avoid body shaming.”
When should you talk about bras?
This conversation depends on your child’s interest and physical development. “Late maturing girls tend to get impatient and want to get a bra when their peers have them,” says Dr. Lagges. “But the roughest situation often involves early maturing girls.” These girls can feel particularly embarrassed. “For the few girls in class who are developing breasts and bigger hips, you may see them walking hunched over and feeling awkward,” adds Dr. Lagges. No matter when these changes occur for your daughter, it’s crucial to explain why her body is evolving, that she should feel proud of her body, and that you will help her find a bra when she wants one.
When should I explain menstruation?
In some cultures, menstruation is celebrated as an entry into womanhood. In other cultures, it is a matter-of-fact development. However you view it, go over the basics before your daughter starts her period. “The theme of that conversation should make clear that getting her period means her body is doing what it’s supposed to do. Explain that every girl goes through this eventually so she does not feel alone,” says Dr. Lagges. It’s also imperative to underscore that your daughter’s body is now capable of having a baby, which may lead into a conversation about sex, if you have not already had that talk.
When should I talk with my child about sex?
“Once kids’ bodies are capable of having a baby, they need to know about sex,” says Dr. Lagges. “They need to know the facts because otherwise they might believe rumors they hear.” For girls, it’s helpful to pair the talk about sex with the talk about menstruation—and try not to be shy about details. “If parents are too vague, newly menstruating girls may worry they’re suddenly going to become pregnant.” For boys, it’s equally important to talk about what their bodies are capable of doing. And for both genders, kids must be told to respect other people’s physical boundaries. Be prepared to talk openly. “Say, ‘I’m here for questions,’” says Dr. Lagges. And answer as best you can.
-- By Rachel Rabkin Peachman