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How Do I Talk With My Child About Puberty?

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Parents can best support their children's effort to cope with puberty-related change by educating them and by being an accepting and understanding presence in their lives. Ideally, parents should teach children:

3D figures with chat bubbles1. what puberty is and what changes to expect,
2. how to care for their bodies,
3. how to make wise and healthy decisions regarding their bodies,
4. how to understand sexual feelings and attraction, and
5. potential consequences of sexual activity.

Communicating this information may be uncomfortable for some parents. However, children who have been educated regarding these points will have the foundation they require for making healthy decisions, and may be more likely than before to come to parents when confronted with troubling "adult" problems such as dating violence, unwanted sexual contact, or peer pressure to use drugs or alcohol. Children who do not have this foundation will instead base their behavior on potentially unreliable information they pick up from peers and similar sources. They may also be less likely to talk with their parents about their problems and thus miss the opportunity to benefit from parental guidance. Preparing children so that they know what they are dealing with regarding puberty doesn't make their adjustment problems go away, but it does give them a significant advantage with regard to the resources they can bring to problem solving.

Coordinate the Message

In most families there is more than one parent or caregiver taking care of children. When this is the case, it is very important that parents and caregivers take time to coordinate their message. Parents and caregivers should talking openly with one another so as to agree on what sort of sexual values they specifically want to teach before anyone starts talking about these issues with the children. The value of parental teachings will be greatly diluted if one parent says one thing and another says something different. Uncoordinated messages will confuse children, or teach an unintended message, that parents' rules are arbitrary and do not need to be followed.

Coordinating values messages among caregivers takes time and energy and can be a source of stress in itself. Consequently, some parents will want to delay doing so. Our advice is that delaying this coordination project is a mistake. Parents often are triggered to discuss sexual and other information with their children only after those children show evidence of being interested in these things. By the time parents realize that the conversation needs to occur, children may be already well into their period of experimentation. In such cases, it is very useful to have the message worked out in advance so that it can be immediately communicated.

Importance of Effective Communication

Educating children about puberty in a way that helps them feel empowered and cared for rather than embarrassed is actually a difficult task as it involves two way communication between parents and children. It's not enough to lecture at children; instead, children need to leave the process feeling that they have been listened to and understood; that it is safe to talk about their concerns. Effective communication involves three things: 1) speaking, 2) listening and 3) the judgment to know when to switch between speaking and listening. Most parents are very good at speaking, but listening can be a challenging process for many. Good listening skills involve not only listening to words that are spoken, but also to the underlying feelings that are communicated but often left unspoken and unacknowledged.

In the following sections, we offer multiple suggestions parents can use to more effectively communicate the "facts of life" to their pre-teen children.