Let’s Talk Puberty (and How to Approach the Subject With Your Kid)
There comes a time in every parent’s life when one must prepare for “the talk.” And who better to help prepare you than someone who has been having this talk, in its various forms, with hundreds of tweens, teens and parents for more than a decade?
Dr. Karen Rayne is author of several books on the topic of puberty, sex and sexuality, including “Breaking the Hush Factor: Ten Rules for Talking with Teenagers about Sex,” “GIRL: Love, Sex, Romance, and Being You” and “Help Your Kids with Adolescence.” And as executive director of the Austin, Texas-based non-profit Unhushed — with its tagline, “Hard topics the easy way. Sex ed done right.” — Rayne provides sex education, trainings and curriculum for schools and regular ol’ parents, alike.
Here, she shares the wisdom she’s gained from being on the front lines of puberty.
First, Don’t Let Eye-Rolling Dissuade You
There are some kids who are going to roll their eyes regardless of what you say, says Rayne. And it’s about more than letting a tween or teen’s attitude slide.
“The need on the part of parents or other adults to prescribe how kids react to any conversation, not just about sex and sexuality, comes from a weird place,” Rayne explains. “We can’t actually control them or their reactions.”
As a parent, you can make choices about what you want to share with your child as far as information and values, says Rayne, but that’s as far as it goes. “Then, it’s up to them.”
It’s Never Too Late
If you haven’t yet had “the talk,” and your once-little tween is now well into teenhood, that’s okay.
“The first thing I want to say is, it’s never too late to start,” says Rayne. “If your child is 17 and you find yourself feeling, ‘Oh, I‘ve never had this conversation. I didn’t know this was a conversation that I could have or should have with them,’ it’s fine.”
There is no time limit on connecting with your child, or sharing information and values.
But Still, Start Young If You Can
The earlier you start talking about body parts, bodily functions, relationships and intimacy, the more normalized it becomes. If you have a 17-year-old, says Rayne, they’ve definitely had conversations about their bodies, sex and sexuality — they’ve just had them with someone other than you. “Those are the people the child feels are the ‘normal’ people to talk about sex with,” she says.
If you start talking about those topics when a child is, say, three years old, then the parent becomes the “normal” person. “You make it easier on yourself, in the long run,” says Rayne.
Think of It as One Long Conversation Over Years
Along the same lines, if you start a conversation about body parts at age three, that evolves into talking about body changes several years later. Then, the next steps — complicated conversations about sex and sexuality, for instance — are a rather natural progression.
“Anything about the body — from puberty to masturbation to menopause to periods and body hair and odors — all of these things fall in the same category of conversation, from my perspective, as sexual activity and birth control,” says Rayne.
The More You Do It, the Easier It Becomes
If you have just one shot at having “the talk” and it doesn’t go as planned, it’s crushing. But if you have dozens, even hundreds, of conversations over a lifetime, who cares if one or two don’t go so well.
“It doesn’t have to be weird; it can be normal,” says Rayne. “Just talk about it often. That’s what makes it normal.”
What’s Hard for You Might Be Easier for Your Partner
For a single dad, menstruation might be a really difficult topic. For a mother, menstruation might be a no-brainer — the tampons or pads are right there in the bathroom, for instance — but maybe it’s triggering to talk about what it means to be safe in relationships.
“There are all kinds of things that people struggle with based on their own identity and life experiences,” says Rayne.
Typically, she says, the conversations about puberty and sex are the hardest when the parent is experiencing some kind of personal roadblock.
What Embarrasses One Child Might Not Embarrass Another
Some kids are very sensitive to germs, and that affects how they see and feel about their own body. And some kids are just very private about their bodies and relationships in general. It’s important to accept each child where they are at.
Often, what’s embarrassing — or not — is heavily influenced by their peers, says Rayne. “There’s not one single trajectory of comfort or discomfort; each individual has their own experience in their peer group.”
It’s the Same Talk for Everyone
“Everyone has always needed to know everything — to understand their fellow human beings,” says Rayne.
The notion that girls need certain information and boys need different information is woefully out-of-date, especially in our increasingly more gender-diverse culture. For Rayne, it all comes back to empathy.
“What we’re doing with sexuality education is increasing our children's empathy for themselves and for others,” she says. “So when we explain, ‘This is what a period is’ or ‘This is what an erection is,’ you’re saying that these things will happen to people you know and care about. You’re in church with them, in sports with them, in school with them … [We share the same information] so that we can all be able to react with knowledge and compassion instead of ewwww. It’s not useful to your child, or any child, for someone to look at them with revulsion.”
Use the Media
“I love using media as a baseline,” says Rayne.
It can be as simple as remarking, when you’re watching a show together with a seven- or eight-year-old, “You know what’s weird? No one in TV shows ever talks about having a period.”
And then see where the conversations takes you.
Make Sure You Have Your Facts Straight
Even informed parents often struggle with when kids should have information about puberty and sex, and what depth of information they need. Clearly, a three-year-old and a 13-year-old get different scripts, but what about a mature nine-year-old, versus an underdeveloped 15-year-old?
Rayne suggests looking at the National Sex Ed Standards, which gives a full scope and sequence of sexual health information from kindergarten through 12th grade. Her own non-profit, Unhushed, also offers sequenced information for kindergarten through 5th grade.
Lean on Someone Else
Parents want to be in charge of most big parenting decisions — and rightly so. But certain things, even “the talk,” can be outsourced. It’s okay, and even important, for other adults to take on lead roles in your child’s life, whether it’s an aunt, uncle or cousin, or trusted family friend.
If you deputize someone else to have some of the conversations around touchy topics with your own child, Rayne says it’s important to first be on the same page. “You can also let them know, as long as my child isn’t being harmed, you can keep things confidential — and let your child know that as well,” she says.
Don’t Rely on Your School
Most children get a very basic introduction to puberty and sexual health in middle school — but what’s actually being taught in the room varies wildly from school to school, whether or not your state mandates comprehensive sex education.
“Get to know your specific child’s specific teacher and ask questions,” says Rayne. “Ask to see the curriculum.”
Admit How You Feel
Sometimes, being brave enough to admit you’re scared is all it takes to bring you and your child closer to the same level. “Acknowledge that you're feeling awkward, if that’s what you’re feeling,” says Rayne. “Naming it takes the bite out of it.”
This tip also relates to one of Rayne’s top 10 tips for talking about sex with teens — deal with your own stuff first. If you have strong feelings or are triggered by having “the talk,” it’s important to investigate why that is. It can be powerful to share some of that thinking with your child, as well.
Don’t Talk Too Much
Two more of Dr. Rayne’s top 10 tips go together: Stop talking! Start listening! The open and honest dialog is the important part, especially if you let your tween or teen do much of the work.
Be Your Own Cheerleader
Talking about sex and sexuality isn’t always easy. (That’s probably why you’re still reading this article.) It’s important to give yourself credit for your effort. “Be your own cheerleader — or get a cheerleader to make sure you keep doing it,” says Rayne.
Positive reinforcement, ideally from someone other than your child, is a must.
Remember, It’s About Your Relationship
The goal is not to know everything there is to know about hormones, acne, sex and relationships. You don’t need to be an expert — and that fact alone can relieve quite a bit of pressure.
Having “the talk” is actually a lot more profound than that. “The goal is to get to know your child and your child’s thoughts,” says Rayne.
And it’s also about your relationship. “I cannot say enough how important the parent-child relationship is,” she says. “It’s often easy for many parents when the child is younger. Now, it’s about shoring it up and not letting it drift away.”