“Where did I come from?” As their child finished the unexpected question, the parents took a breath, sat her down and began “the talk.” When they finished the “ins and outs” of how babies are made, their daughter cried, “I just wanted to know if I was from New York!!”
The poor girl got a lot more than she bargained for.
When it comes to talking to kids about puberty, many parents feel awkward and uncomfortable. So much so that it often leads to avoidance or missed opportunities when children are younger to begin this discussion. Those of us who work with families can support these conversations with a few key strategies.
In truth, there is no singular talk. Discussion of puberty, intimacy, reproduction, body autonomy, and consent must be ongoing and must evolve with each stage of a child’s development.
Children are naturally curious and will take in information from a variety of sources — friends, teachers, social media, the internet, and the larger culture around them. Having these essential conversations sets parents up as a trusted source of information and their child’s safe “go-to” guide.
Encourage families to support the following strategies:
Start early — With babies and toddlers, use anatomically correct names for body parts. Normalize body curiosity as a part of being human, not as something shameful. Allow conversations to naturally evolve as children ask questions. Puberty is beginning earlier than it used to. While the current average age of onset for puberty is 11 or 12, the range is frequently between 8 to 14 years.
Follow my golden rule of sharing information with a child — Answer them truthfully, with small nuggets of truth appropriate to their level of understanding, gradually expanding those nuggets as they ask more questions. (Doing this would have saved the family I described a lot of big feelings!). For example, when asking where babies come from, very young children are generally not looking for a mechanics lesson. Rather, an answer such as “a baby grows in a parent’s belly” may suffice.
Don’t wait for a child to ask questions to begin discussions about puberty. They may not know that it is an okay topic to discuss. Use books or everyday moments to talk about how their bodies may change over time, for example.
Be inclusive — Research is clear that there is much parents can do to decrease the risk of negative mental health outcomes for LGBTQ+, trans, non-binary, and gender-fluid children and teens. Adopt an affirming and inclusive stance. Be vocal in support of others and accepting of all forms of difference and diversity. Use the correct pronouns for your child or teen.
Share all aspects of puberty — Help them understand the physical and emotional changes that they may experience from changes in their body shapes, their skin, their moods, and everything in between.
To support these conversations, here are some excellent books about puberty for different age ranges.
An inclusive book designed for aged kids 3-7. Its bright non-gendered illustrations are eye-catching and keep a young child engaged while learning how a sperm and egg come together to make a baby. The book shares the various ways a baby may be born and the various types of families that may be “waiting for” the baby to arrive.
Another inclusive book from Cory Silverberg, this one is designed for slightly older kids aged 7-10. (There’s also a wonderful, third book for tweens and teens). With an engaging introduction to gender, bodies, and relationships, this book features a diverse group of cartoon kids in terms of appearance, ability, and point of view. There is a heavy emphasis on thinking for oneself and developing one’s own opinions. Each section ends with conversation-provoking questions, designed to be shared in conversation with a trusted adult.
Celebrate Your Body (and Its Changes, Too!): The Ultimate Puberty Book for Girls by Sonya Renee Taylor
This book is a body-positive supportive guide to the changes that girls may experience during puberty. It addresses everything from period care and body hair to bra shopping and dental care.
A visually appealing children’s guide to understanding sex, gender, and relationships that is inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community. This guide represents families of all genders and sexual orientations, exploring topics such as puberty, hormones, consent, sexual activity, pregnancy, and safety in a way that is suitable for kids.