Planning To Talk To Your Child About Puberty? Here's How To Do It
Coping with puberty can be challenging for both boys and girls. So, parental support and advice is necessary. Here's how you can guide your child through the various stages of this vulnerable time.
By Dr Lakshmi Krishnan
Sleepless nights, temper tantrums and force-feeding spinach pales in comparison to the challenge of talking to your child about puberty. It's a topic that leaves most parents feeling awkward and inadequate.
Though this is a trying time for both parents and children, it can be a positive and enriching experience as well, if there is open communication. A lack of communication between the parent and the child, particularly when the child is looking for support and security, can lead to anger, frustration and a lack of self-esteem in the child.
Each family and perhaps even, each parent, may have a different take on how to approach puberty and its changes. However, it is important for parents to agree on a consistent approach to provide stability for the child during this period of change. Having an open dialogue on the topic is a must. And, it must be an ongoing one so that both parents and child can work through the issues that come up with the different stages of puberty and maturity.
When to start
Today’s children are exposed to abundant information about sex and relationships through the media. Sometimes, they think they know all about puberty and the associated changes! But it is important for parents to be aware that not all the information children receive is reliable.
Therefore, beginning a conversation before the onset of puberty, prepares a child to face the challenges of an awkward few years. Girls go through puberty between the ages of 9 and 13 while boys experience it from the ages of 11 to 16. So, the ideal time to start a dialogue is around 9 years for girls and 10 years for boys.
What to say
Talking to your child about the physical changes (described in Pubertal Changes box) is as important as the emotional changes they go through. While going through puberty, your child may feel insecure, anxious, embarrassed, angry and sometimes, depressed as well. So, reassure her, empathise with her and, most importantly, listen to what she has to say. Be open and honest in your approach and assure your child that you also experienced similar emotions when you went through puberty.
Issues relating to hygiene must also be addressed. Children should be educated on the changes occurring in both sexes so that they can treat each other with respect and recognise the changes.
How to overcome inhibitions when talking to the child
The easiest way to start is by talking about changes in height and weight. Girls, for example, start gaining a weight and growing a little taller, a year before puberty. So, you could start the conversation by saying — “Oh look you are growing! Soon, you will start changing little by little and one day you will look like mom!” Some girls have body odour or pubic hair and may be curious about these changes and ask questions. The key is to start the conversations in a way that is not alarming to the child. It is sometimes harder to start dialogues with boys. Dads can do this when they notice changes in shoe sizes which often precede even height increase. Boys mature later than girls, both physically and emotionally.
How to explain these changes
While it is important to use the right scientific words, it may also cause the child some anxiety. Use simple language. With girls, the menstrual cycle can be explained when a few of the other secondary sexual characteristics have started appearing (breast buds, axillary and pubic hair). This could be followed up with discussions on the uterus, ovaries and hormones.
Who should talk — mother, father or someone else
Mothers are usually the ones who discuss the changes with the girls. There are instances when another female member of the family may be designated to do this, maybe an older sister, aunt or someone else depending on the family situation. Either parent could talk to boys. Again, this would depend on whom the child feels more comfortable with. Many boys are close to their mothers and do not have a problem having a conversation with them.
When to worry
Puberty is a physiological process and in most instances, progresses without incident. It is always a good idea to have an annual check-up with the child’s doctor to monitor ongoing changes. Parents should also know about precocious puberty, that is, the onset of puberty prior to age 8 in girls and age 9 in boys. Delayed puberty is after the age of 15 in girls and 16 in boys. Both warrant an evaluation by the endocrinologist to detect the medical problems that may be causing this.
Dealing with emotional issues is just as important as dealing with the physical issues. You may have to worry if your child is consistently unable to cope with her feelings. Sometimes, physical issues may lead to emotional issues — how tall or short the child is, dealing with acne and so on. Since genetics plays a big role in the many physical aspects of puberty, it would be wise to seek the doctor’s opinion on anything that seems out of the ordinary. Any major deviation from familial characteristics warrants attention.
Appropriate educational literature* is available to help a child understand the process of puberty. However, parents must read and review the material before sharing it with the child.
This is a time of major change, for both you and your child. Remember, communication is key. Also, know that there will be difficult times, when you need to be calm and supportive. Yes, your little one is growing up. And you need to be right there, walking hand in hand.
Dr Lakshmi Krishnan, a graduate of the Madras Medical College, is a paediatrician working in Fort Myers, Florida, USA.
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