By Janelle Watson, MA, LMFT | January 17, 2019
Founder, Embrace Wellness
When it comes to figuring out how to talk to their kids about difficult topics, I find that parents want all the help they can get. Educators and providers often have opportunities to offer guidance that can help parents succeed.
What do parents want to know? Everything. How do we talk about sex? How do we talk about abstinence, affirmative consent, birth control, STDs? How do I talk to my kid about drugs and alcohol? Tobacco? How do we talk about dating violence and personal safety? How do we talk about depression? Eating disorders? Self-esteem? Respect?
It’s overwhelming, right? There are so many “Talks” to be had. The truth is, talking with children and teens about difficult topics is a skill people can develop. And I have a few tips on how to build some confidence and muscle in that area using a life transition that we have all gone through. In a word: puberty.
For those of us who need a refresher, puberty is the process of physical changes when a child’s body matures into an adult body capable of sexual reproduction. Thank you, Wikipedia! As we know, this process takes a number of years.
I’ve prepared a parent handout that covers the same information as this post, but geared directly to parents. You can find it here. Please feel free to copy and share.
Puberty is a time when young people have a lot of questions. And they don’t find a lot of answers for their questions—or at least not a lot of answers they find useful. Children may feel embarrassed or uncomfortable bringing up questions about what’s happening to their body. They might not know where to go for good information.
Parents know about puberty! They might wonder if their own experience of puberty is relevant to their child, considering the cultural differences between childhoods in the past and contemporary times. I find that parents are often surprised at how sharing their own story can help their child. It helps to normalize their child's experience and lets them know that they aren’t as weird as they might feel. Plus, parents can start the conversations about puberty and menstruation when kids are young—nine, eight, or even younger.
Talking about difficult subjects like sex and consent and safety is not a “one-and-done” conversation. These are complex issues. Most parents have complicated and nuanced ideas about these matters, and their ideas and what they want to say often evolve over time.
The same is true for talking about puberty. Children are interested in different aspects of puberty at different times. Parents can ask what children would like to know. A younger child will probably want to know how their body will grow. An older child may want to know when to expect their period.
Parents don’t have to be the expert on everything their child needs to know. Parents often feel the pressure to know everything there is to know and be ready to answer any possible questions that come up. That’s a lot of pressure! It’s no wonder they hesitate to bring up sensitive topics.
We need to reassure parents that it’s okay not to know everything. And it’s okay for them to admit this to their kids. This is a chance to say, “You know what? I don’t know the answer to that. Let’s look it up together.” This can also be a great opportunity to help a child find another trusted adult who can help with answers or offer support: an aunt, a cousin, a trusted neighbor or teacher.
I have been this support person in my own extended family, and I love it! I’ve also really loved leading groups of girls gathered with their moms or female caregivers to talk about periods. In this group space, fourth or fifth grade girls love hearing about what it’s like to have your first period. And they’re curious to see real pads and tampons and learn how to use them.
In these groups, we talk about physical changes to expect during puberty and why you sometimes feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster—happy one minute, sad the next. In the group setting, the girls feel less awkward because they realize they’re not alone. As the girls and their caregivers practice talking about something that might be uncomfortable, their later conversations won’t be as scary to have.
Talking about puberty is a fertile space for talking about self-esteem. Some young people are confident during puberty. They like getting taller, looking more like an adult, feeling more mature. But some are insecure about the changes taking place. Maybe they’re maturing slower or faster than their friends. Different growth rates can cause discomfort.
To keep the conversation open and moving, a parent needs to listen to find out what’s going on with their child. This is a great way for parents to practice bringing awareness and attention to their conversations with their kids.
Imagine a child comes home from school and says, “I just had the worst day of my life. I started my period at school and I didn’t have any pads with me and I had to go to the office to get some pads and everybody knew what I was doing. It was the worst day of my life.”
This child doesn’t want to hear their parent say, “Don’t be silly. It’s not the worst day of your life. Just wait until blah blah blah happens. Then you’ll know what the worst day of your life is.”
No. This child wants their parent to understand that, “TODAY was the worst day of my life.” Period. It’s the worst day of their life. For them. Period.
We can remind parents not to ask their child to start from the parent’s space, with an adult’s perspective and hindsight. They don’t need to make everything better or make their kids think the day was NOT the worst day of their life. I suggest parents hear them out. They’re often surprised by what they hear—worries and concerns they never expected. I’ve heard stories about teens who worry their parents will be angry with them for having a period because it ruined a pair of their pants. It’s amazing to see what details we focus on in a state of confusion or panic.
Once parents practice listening to their child, they’ll be more prepared to let them know, “I understand where you’re coming from, and I take your concerns seriously.” And it’s likely that child will be more prepared to talk about their concerns. This is a foundation parents can build on throughout their relationship with their child.
If you’re a parent yourself, or that extended family member support person, I hope you’ll use these tips to engage in some exciting and illuminating conversations with kids. If you’re an educator or a provider who works with children, parents and families, I hope you’ll share these tips. To make that easier, I’ve prepared a parent handout that covers the same information as this post, but geared directly to parents. You can find it here. Please feel free to copy and share.
If you have tips of your own that help parents engage in positive, constructive conversations with their children, I’d love to hear about them.
Janelle Watson was an invited participant in the 2018 Kirby Summit IV convening. Her post is part of a series addressing the ways parents, teachers and other adults can support adolescents in developing healthy relationships—a process called “scaffolding.” Learn more about scaffolding here. Watch for additional resources in future posts on our blog.
Janelle Watson, MA, LMFT, has worked with children and families around sexual and reproductive health for over 10 years. She also has a psychotherapy private practice, serving individuals, couples and families in the Los Angeles area. She is the founder of Embrace Wellness and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.