You know “The Puberty Talk” as performed in Hollywood films where you sit down with your kid for a one-time-only monologue about the birds and the bees? Experts discourage this form of hierarchal information download and favor instead ongoing, age-appropriate exchanges about the bodily changes and emotions of adolescence, and not just when you see a growth spurt or breast buds. I suggest the ongoing dialogue as a way of building trust and fluency about touchy subjects, and to open a sense of agency about body changes before the stakes get higher and you move the topic to drugs and sex.
But first, a moment of silence for the fact that you, as a mom, are facing big hormonal flux of your own with worsening PMS, growing anxiety, taking care of parents, dips in sex drive and perhaps a growing waisteline — all at the same time as your kids are hitting hormonal flux of puberty. Doesn’t it feel like nature’s cruel joke to juxtapose your own perimenopause with your kid’s puberty? I never understood the timing of this. My hat is off to you and I’m right there with you. I’ve got two tweens myself.
DOs + DON’Ts
Here are a few DOs and DON’Ts that have worked for me and my female patients who are moms:
• Do seek teachable moments – a TV show or a story from school about a friend are a great seque. For me, a trip to a public bathroom led my daughter to ask about the tampon dispenser, and that led to a lively discussion about the reason for pads and tampons.
• Don’t drop a book on puberty in their lap and ask if they have questions. That leaves most kids cold and feeling isolated, like there’s something wrong. Other ways of opening the subject are: “When I was 10, I wish I had someone to talk to about all the changes that were happening to my body. My breasts were growing, I got more moody. Do you have changes you’ve noticed?”
• Do set the intention to work on communication and decision making – data show that this makes teens and parents more comfortable talking about nascent sexuality and sex, which is really the point of puberty.
• Don’t stare them down. Sometimes sitting down in a quiet place and looking deeply into your child’s eyes… well, it wigs them out. Some experts suggest bringing up body changes casually in the car where you don’t have to look at each other. This doesn’t work so well for me because I’m not a great multi-tasker while driving but many kids feel far less threatened in this setting.
• Do give bite-sized pieces of information. Sometimes we feel like we need to be all War and Peace about the download and waver into the TMI territory. Stick to the basics and see if the discussion generates questions or comments rather than feeling like you need to be a walking encyclopedia of all-things-puberty.
• Don’t project your own version of puberty. Kids are savvy and smell this a mile away. Whereever you landed on the spectrum with your own experience of puberty – from awful and awkward (that would be me) to easeful and full of grace (“Puberty is not so bad!”), know that your kid is having their own experience, life is different now than 30 to 40 years ago, and be careful not to fall into the “Mini-me” fallacy of assuming your kids is having the same experience as you.
• Do encourage AGENCY. Encourage your tween or teen to develop relationships with trusted relatives and older friends who can act as a non-parental resource. I encourage my daughters to call my younger sisters, as an example. It develops resourcefulness and agency so that when a kid is in a bind or unsure about something, they have more options for getting reliable information.
The good news is that kids are hungry for information, and they want it from their parents. They’re smart enough to know that the crazy things they hear from their friends is probably incorrect (and that is often true). We want to minimize the misinformation, and to start with puberty education. Over time, as you add more skills and facility with hot topics, move on to the realms of sex and drug education.