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Health Tips for Parents

2007 Issues

How do I talk to my child about puberty?


The physical changes of puberty are a source of excitement and insecurity for children.With these physical changes comes a growing awareness about their changing bodies and their own sexuality. Children begin to compare themselves to their same-sex peers and start to wonder about the changes in their friends of the opposite sex.

Parents should recognize that their children – who may have been very open to most discussion topics in the past – may be reluctant to approach their parents with questions about sexuality, notes Martin Anderson, M.D., adolescent medicine specialist at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA. Because the physical changes are private and topics like masturbation and sexuality are somewhat taboo in our culture, children may be embarrassed about the subject. However, parents should set the tone that these changes are natural. Parents of girls should be prepared to discuss menstruation and its purpose; parents of boys should be prepared to discuss penile development, erections and noctural emissions.

Start early – Developmentally appropriate, informal talks about body changes and body functions should begin as early as kindergarten. Younger grade-school aged children are fascinated by and endlessly curious about body changes and will ask direct questions. Dr. Anderson urges parents to answer back in an honest manner, making sure they are answering the actual question that is asked. Use the real names of body parts and functions and answer in a way that is age appropriate.

“By the time a child enters puberty and early adolescence, he or she should have an established history of honest answers and advice from mom and dad,” he says. Age-appropriate books are good resources to share with children as well. Parents may want to read the books themselves, to refresh their memories about the stages and complexities of adolescence.

Seize opportunities – The best way to begin a dialogue is by seizing opportunities when they arise naturally in everyday life. Begin a discussion by bringing up a situation that may have happened to a friend or family – or even something that grabbed the day’s news headlines. Storylines in television shows may provide a launching pad for an informal discussion. Activities, such as playing catch, provide excellent settings for child-parent discussions. “By participating in their children’s daily lives, parents will come across many opportunities to get involved in a discussion,” Dr. Anderson notes.

Be ready – Be ready to answer questions honestly and spend the time with your child when a serious topic arises. “A child may decide to ask you a question about sex while you are struggling to get out the door in the morning,” Dr. Anderson says. “Grab the opportunity immediately rather than push off the conversation for another time; and remember that it’s the quality of the discussion, not the time spent.” If parents feel unprepared to have a truthful discussion on a topic, they should seek advice from their child’s doctor.

Adolescence is a long journey that children must ultimately navigate on their own. By listening in a non-judgmental fashion, providing information early and often and keeping an open door policy, parents will remain their child’s most trusted source.

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