Your guide to talking to your child about puberty
Puberty is a time of physical, emotional and sexual changes. The process can take an emotional toll on both children and parents. But these significant changes are much less stressful for families who have conversations about “growing up” early.
Discussions about physical changes should be a continuing dialogue and not a one-time discussion about “the birds and the bees.” As parents, we should reassure our children that they can always talk to us and not be embarrassed when discussing body parts. They need to feel free in talking about changes to their bodies, emotions and feelings of physical attraction.
Typically, girls enter puberty at 8 years old with breast bud development, and boys at 9 years old with testicular enlargement.
For many children, questions about the changes in their bodies are very typical. For example, a young girl with a breast bud may talk with friends or use the Internet when she first experiences a mass under her nipple (breast bud). But without adequate information, support and reassurance that this is normal, she may believe she has a tumor or breast cancer. Similarly, a male may experience “wet dreams” (nighttime ejaculation) and may mistake this for infection or disease.
Listen to your child’s questions and concerns. Address them honestly with age-appropriate language. Don’t use slang for parts of the body’s anatomy, but instead, correct terms such as vagina, testicle, breast, etc.
If possible, both parents should participate in the continuing dialogues. Don’t segregate every conversation by gender. Both parents addressing questions helps your child realize it’s normal for adults to know about anatomy and bodily changes in both males and females. This helps to normalize the conversation and allow children to conclude that neither parent is trying to hide something from them. It will always be easier for your child if he or she can approach either parent to receive accurate information. Older siblings can always be involved in the conversations, as children will sometimes seek advice from someone closer to their age, but it’s important to be sure older siblings are providing accurate information.
These discussions should occur in nonthreatening, non-rushed circumstances to devote enough time to have calm, meaningful conversations. Include discussions on underarm and pubic hair development, menstruation (periods), deepening of the voice in males, body odor, facial hair and physical attraction to others. Reassure your child that changes during puberty are a normal developmental process.
If you or your child have questions or concerns about puberty, reach out to your pediatrician or primary care provider. They can help reassure your child that the information you’ve provided is accurate. This additional reassurance from a health care professional can be a wonderful way of helping your child navigate sexual development, and the education offered by a physician can decrease some of the anxiety associated with change. Ideally, such open discussions between adolescent patients and their health care practitioners will continue as adolescents are confronted with potential risk-taking behaviors common during the teen years.
About the Author
Dr. Cathy Joyce is a pediatrician and the director for the division of Adolescent Medicine & Pediatrics at Advocate Children's Hospital.