Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Talking with Kids about Puberty

Cover of "The Care & Keeping of You: The ...

Cover via Amazon

We’ve talked before about making sure that you provide an open opportunity for your children to talk with you about sexuality. An important part of that conversation is talking with your children about the changes that puberty will bring to their bodies.  According to the National Institute of Health, puberty usually starts between the ages of 10-14 for girls and 12-16 for boys. But, the National Research Center for Women & Families says that studies dating back to 10 years ago suggest that almost half of African-American girls and about 15% of White girls are showing signs of puberty as early as the age of 8. You may not have expected it, but if your 7 or 8-year-old daughter is beginning to show some early signs of puberty, that may not necessarily be unusual. Signs of puberty include:

For Girls

  • Breast development
  • Mature body odor
  • Growth of hair under the arms and in the pubic area
  • Acne
  • Menstruation

For Boys

  • Enlargement of testicles and penis
  • Mature body odor
  • Growth of hair on the face, under the arms, and in the pubic area
  • Acne
  • Muscles grow, voice deepens

Changes in your body can be uncomfortable and upsetting if you’re not expecting them, so it’s important for parents to start talking with their children early about the changes that will occur. Since some girls are beginning to show signs of puberty as early as the age of 7, this means parents need to start talking with children about how their body will be changing at that age. Even if your child’s body isn’t changing, some of her/his classmates may be, and understanding what’s happening will help them be more supportive of the changes their friend may be going through.

A great book for girls that I’ve personally used with all three of my daughters is The Care & Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls, which is an American Girl book. This book is very girl friendly and has great illustrations. I’ve used it to talk with my daughters starting at the age of 7, and they were able to understand it and enjoy it. What I love about this book is that it doesn’t just address “sex,” it talks about body changes and how to take care of your body. Topics range from hair to skin, how to choose a bra and breast development, how to choose healthy foods and respond to the over focus on food and weight that some girls in puberty start dealing with, menstruation and more. Because the book is divided up into different topics, you can also choose the things that are most appropriate for your child’s age and focus on those. For boys, I’ve been told that What’s Happening to My Body and  It’s Perfectly Normal are good books, however, I haven’t used either. I’d love to here recommendations for books for boys from those who’ve found one they really like.

If anyone has other books for girls or boys that are good to jumpstart a conversation on puberty, please share them! The great thing about books like this is that you can read parts of them with your child to begin the conversation about body changes and then move into answering their questions. Some parents are uncomfortable talking about this, so having a guide can be really helpful.  Here are some more suggestions on how to talk with your child about puberty.

  • Start early: Take opportunities when they notice an older friend’s or relative’s development to talk about how it’s normal for our bodies to change as we get older. You can talk about how the bodies of girls and boys are different from those of women and men by simply using yourself as an example. You can say something like, “my body looks like this because I’m a grown up woman/man and yours looks like that because you’re still a child. Someday your body will start to change, and you’ll slowly start looking like a grown up too. It doesn’t happen all at once, but a little bit at a time.”
  • Be open: You want your child to feel comfortable talking about changes they may be experiencing, so open up that conversation yourself.  Talk about how their bodies are changing and what it feels like. Let your child voice their feelings about these changes as well. They may feel embarrassed or excited or ambivalent, any and all of these emotions are okay.
  • Provide support: It is vital that you provide your child with the physical things that they need as they go through puberty. When you start noticing that body odor, get them their own deodorant. Take your daughter bra shopping when she starts showing signs of significant breast development. Buy pads BEFORE your daughter starts her period so that you have some on hand. In fact, make a small kit with her that she can take to school that has one or two pads and an extra pair of underwear tucked discreetly in a little make-up bag or something similar. This way she’ll feel secure in knowing that if the occasion arises, she can take care of her needs.
  • Early Puberty: If your child is below the age of 7 or 8 and is beginning to show signs of puberty, they may be experiencing what’s called precocious puberty. This is a medical condition that you need to see your doctor about rather than normal development.  A visit to the doctor will help you feel confident in knowing if your child is developing normally or if some medial intervention is needed.
  • Everyone develops differently: If your child starts showing signs of puberty at 7 or 8 and your doctor assures you that all is well, don’t panic thinking that they will fully develop in the next year. In fact, girls who start showing some early signs of puberty at the age of 7 may not start their periods until they’re 12 or 13 while girls who show no signs of puberty until 10 or 11 may start their periods that year. Everybody develops differently, so just prepare your child, open the door for conversation, and try not to worry.

Talking about puberty is an important conversation. You don’t want your child to be one of those who starts experiencing body changes and thinks there’s something wrong with them because nobody told them that this would happen! Body changes are natural and good, and your calm, open communication about them will allow your child to feel confident as their body begins to change.

6 comments on “Talking with Kids about Puberty

  1. naomi
    January 31, 2012

    I find the whole puberty thing starting early very scary. Children are just coming into knowing who they are and asserting themselves and then they have to deal with hormones. The advice you give Jennifer is great and I am sure will help mums and dads.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      January 31, 2012

      It’s so true, Naomi, that for many parents seeing early signs of puberty at the age of 7 can be frightening. It’s just not what you expect. I’ve found that if you help them take care of their needs and provide a listening ear, you can help your child manage this transition gracefully. Parents have to remember that even as their child begins to change, they are still a child and have the same needs and interests. Provide them with guidance and allow them to grow at their own pace and things will go more smoothly.

  2. Ruthann
    February 1, 2012

    Thank you so much for this information! I have to admit, I’m pretty terrified to talk to my 6 year old daughter about sexuality and puberty. We have a great relationship and can easily talk about just about anything but I never know how to bring these topics up or what to say. I breathed a little sigh of relief when I read your point about starting early. I realized that we have already had a similar conversation about my body and her body being different and why. This reassured me that I haven’t completely avoided the topic (just partially, lol). Oh and I LOVE the idea of making a small kit to take to school in anticipation of the first period. I will never forget the day in 8th grade when I went in the bathroom and was horrified when I looked at my underwear. I proceeded to wad up a bunch of toilet paper and then, mortified, went and told the school secretary who called my mom to come get me. Worst day ever. Pretty sure my mom gave me a copy of “Are you there God? It’s Me, Margaret” to read that evening. *sigh*

    I’m determined to be way more open and relaxed about all of this with my daughter and I thank you so much for helping me!!

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      February 1, 2012

      Hi Ruthann, thanks for the comment. I think you are right on target for a 6 year old! Those little, in the moment casual discussions pave the way for the more intense conversations later. The key is helping your child feel safe and comfortable coming to you for her information, and it sounds like that’s just what you’re already doing.

      Your first period story is one I have heard so often! I swore that when my girls started, they would have heard about it from me first and be at least a little bit prepared. You’re doing good work, momma!

  3. naomi
    August 1, 2012

    how do i talk to an 8 yr old boy about pee pee hard ones, i have no idea how to begin but kids at school are talking about gay and kissing and sex helpp me please….

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      August 9, 2012

      Hi Naomi, The important thing to remember is that sexuality is natural. If an 8 year old is experiencing erections and isn’t sure what’s happening, you can talk about how our bodies work, and let him know that it’s okay and natural.

      Wen it comes to talking about physical affection, you can talk about how we all like to share physical affection with those we love to help us feel close to each other. Using a hug as an example is a great way to talk about affection with young kids. As we get older and our relationships become more serious, we still hug each other, but depending on the relationship, our ways of showing our affection may change. Putting sexual behaviors in the context of their relationships and their own feelings and desires helps a child learn to see them in the context of the child as a whole person.

      I hope this is helpful!

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