when to talk about puberty
When to Talk About Puberty and Sex
When and how to talk to your kids about puberty and sex often has parents scrambling for information.
Many of us get confused about when to give information about puberty and when to have a discussion about sex and sexual relationships. Some parents feel nervous or awkward and do not know how to bring it up. Often the topic of sex and puberty seem to be lumped in together as the same topic, when in fact they are very different topics. It is very important that these topics are covered in stages and in the right way to accommodate each child’s development and awareness. I like to see this as a discussion that we start when children are younger planting small seeds that we continue to add to as they grow up.
NB: For parents who are nervous or struggling with feelings of awkwardness around “how” to talk about it, please keep a look out for my next article, How To Talk About Puberty.
For girls, who generally mature earlier, a discussion about puberty is often relevant at earlier ages than for boys. It is not uncommon these days for girls to start puberty early with body changes such as breast buds and hair growth starting around 9-10 years (or even younger). Statistics also reveal that girls are increasingly starting to menstruate on average at a younger age, so we need to prepare them well with sensitivity. Just because they need to know and understand about the body changes that accompany puberty, does not mean they need to know about the ins and outs of sex just yet. Discussing the changes in their body might mean you talk about that fact they will be able to have children (one day) but that does not also mean that you need to give an in-depth treatise on how that happens! Research has shown girls that go through puberty early often experience social difficulties, low self esteem and early sexual relationships. I believe that these problems can be avoided when we approach this topic with sensitivity and give information required in a child-appropriate manner. Just because your 9 year old’s body is maturing, does not mean she is ready to take on adult concepts or is ready for a rational and frank discussion. Too much information too soon becomes a burden for the child and can result in them acting it out inappropriately.
In any case, it is not uncommon for questions about sex itself to still arise in younger age groups. This can happen well before the heralding signs of maturity. Many young children are exposed to sex talk amongst older children or siblings and increasingly through the media and internet, so it is not uncommon for ‘sex’ to be talked about amongst young primary school children. While questions around sex might come up in your child during the early primary years, I personally do not recommend talking about it officially yet or attempting to explain things too much.
Most school curriculums cover sex education in grade 6 or 7 as this is when children are ready to understand the concepts with more maturity. So if your child has questions at a younger age, it is important to remember that they may still be a long way away from when they will be developmentally ready to talk about it with maturity and understanding. It is also important that where possible all the kids in a school class or age group are brought things at a similar level and stage. When basic questions do come up in the earlier ages, I think it is best to say that it is something that they will learn about in more detail when they are older. For a younger child it might be appropriate to just say that sex is something very special and loving between adults or (mums and dads) and you will learn about it later when you are older. It is better to say very little and keep it to non-cognitive type discussions as, in many cases, it will blow over after a short while. They are usually comforted in knowing that it is not something they need to know or worry about and they can just relax and be kids for a bit longer!
It can be good to also tell the child that their teacher will cover this in detail in year 6/7 so it gives them perspective and permission to wait to learn more and in the mean time let it go. Time and again, I find that children feel relieved by being able to let things go, and not feel burdened by adult concepts too early.
Each family is different and a child who has no siblings, will obviously be very different to a child who is the youngest in a family of four children. By default, the younger siblings will often have heard or been exposed to things earlier. Despite this, I still recommend attempting to avoid too much early exposure to adult concepts in the younger siblings. Talking to older children and making them aware of what is appropriate is important to prevent accidental exposure to adult themes in the younger ears or eyes. In my own experience, I have been able to have some basic discussions with my son, about the changes that occur when he will reach maturity. As his older sister is passing through puberty and he has older male cousins doing the same, we use this as a starting point for noticing the changes that one day he will experience when he becomes a teenager. He is interested but also happy to wait as he wants to be a child as long as possible!
It is always sad when children are exposed to adult concepts (whether it be sex, financial stress, drugs etc) too early. I remember I was concerned when my daughter was in grade 2 and there was talk amongst the kids about “sexing”. Many parents were a little alarmed, but when some of these children were asked what “sexing” meant, they didn’t know. They just kind of talked about it generally along with kissing and the other normal and innocent romance and relationship play for that age. However, it is important to differentiate between precocious sexual play and behaviour and what is considered normal play. Statistics show that children are increasingly exposed to sexual themes over the internet whether intentionally or by accident. In some cases, children who are regularly bringing sexual themes into the playground may have been exposed to explicit adult sexual images or may have even experienced sexual abuse. This is an area to tread carefully with and may warrant discussion with teachers or parents if you are concerned for a child’s welfare. We can say that in a general sense, children who are bringing these adult themed topics up in the school playground or on the school bus and talking about it to other kids, usually means they are having trouble processing it and probably not mature enough or ready for it.
In the end while it is a hard road to navigate, we just have to hold our children securely and try to be the counterbalance to the crazy culture! The interaction children witness between their parents or other adults whom they are close to will still be the major sex and relationship education they receive. If they observe genuine respect, love and care amongst their parents, they will model that. If they witness affection, intimacy and mutual kindness then that tends to be their benchmark and what they aspire to in forming a healthy relationship. Above all we need to teach our children that their body is sacred and that the bodies of others are sacred too. Anything that they witness that contradicts that or makes them feel uncomfortable, is not OK. Teaching your child to tune in to their inner wisdom and the messages that they body sends them about what is right or wrong is an important tool they will use for life. That is why teaching girls about trusting their intuition and fostering self respect and self worth is a major focus of our work with girls in the Gaia Girls programmes. Giving your child the gift of self knowledge and self love will help them make decisions that are right for them (and respectful of others) in all areas of their life through both the teen years and into adulthood.