Of all the challenges we as parents face, how to talk to kids about puberty is one of the more daunting ones. There are tons of reasons for this—for one thing, we may not have gotten the best versions of The Talk(s) from our own parents—but another big one is that puberty has fundamentally changed since we went through it. There’s compelling evidence that puberty is starting earlier (and not ending earlier—therefore lasting longer) than ever before, not to mention all the ways technology and modern culture have complicated the tween and early teen years.
With all this in mind, Cara Natterson, MD, and Vanessa Kroll Bennett teamed up to write “This Is So Awkward”, a book aiming to help guide parents through all the ups, downs and in-betweens of these years. We got their tips for handling these delicate conversations and parenting steadily through a rocky time in development. The good news? Even with all that’s changed, you can be prepared.
When to talk to your kids
With evidence of puberty trickling downwards (the authors note that many parents see signs in their children around age 9), you can’t wait until middle school to start talking to your children about the changes they’re going to see in their bodies. “Technically we say the book covers ages 8 to 18,” says Bennett. “But it’s really never too early—or too late.” (This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to tell your 5-year-old about how erections work, but it does go back to a central theme that comes up again and again in the book: don’t lie. If your curious first-grader sees a tampon and asks what it is, tell the truth!)
Age 8 or 9 does seem to be the average right age to start having dedicated conversations about upcoming bodily changes on the horizon—things like breast buds, hair growth and body odor that they may be dealing with fairly soon. As you start to broach these topics—and maybe even see some of these changes in your child—remember, they might seem or look like adolescents, but they’re still kids.
“They are not the age they appear,” says Bennett. Even if your 11-year-old looks 15, they’re still 11. “We really like to remind people they may not look the way you expect an 11-year-old to look, but they still need the hugs and kisses and cuddles. You don’t want to make assumptions about what earlier puberty means for these kids,” she explains. That applies to these conversations, too: having them earlier means tailoring them to your audience. Keep it simple. Answer their questions, but don’t over-explain. And understand that The Talk is actually more like 5,000 tiny talks.
How to talk to your kids
If you take one lesson from Natterson and Bennett, let it be this: you never go wrong explaining to your kids why something is happening in their body. Telling your 9-year-old daughter that soon she will bleed every month for a few days out of her vagina without any context? Scary and disorienting. Explaining the science behind the menstrual cycle, and that a period is her body’s way of shedding the excess lining her uterus doesn’t need when she’s not pregnant? Much less terrifying.
“This Is So Awkward” delves into the science behind every bodily change, from armpit hair to body odor to acne, to empower you as their parent to explain to them the why of everything that is happening. “One of the things we encourage is to explain the science. Kids feel so much less shame and confusion when they are like, oh, these moods that I keep feeling, there’s science behind it,” says Bennett.
Another important thing to remember: you don’t have to do all the talking. “I think when parents are stressed or worried or at a loss, we actually end up talking more and we forget to get underneath the hood of the car and kind of get a sense of what’s going on with our kid,” says Bennett. Let them lead the conversation for a bit. “As kids get older, that skill of listening more and talking less becomes more and more important,” she says. “Don’t forget how cool and interesting and funny and smart and insightful your kids are, and give them the benefit of the doubt to be able to build the skill of self-reflection and self-expression.”
How to talk to yourself
There’s an elephant in the room: if puberty is starting earlier, why? The big problem is that we don’t know. There is a list of potential suspects (including things like endocrine disruptors and processed foods), but Dr. Natterson and Bennett agree that whatever the culprit(s) are, you are not one of them. “I hate the idea that parents are blaming themselves,” says Bennett. “Hopefully, someday, we will make all sorts of systemic changes, but for now we just have to figure out ways to be constructive and positive and optimistic about the kids living in our houses.”
Still, parenting through puberty can feel scary, especially in this day and age. “I think people assume that with earlier onset of puberty, like an 8-year-old with breast buds or a 9-year-old who has a growing penis and testicles, that this means earlier onset of sexual desire and sexual activity. And that’s where the fear sits for people,” says Bennett. “But those are actually separate things.” So try and remind yourself of that (it’s worth repeating: they are not the age they look like!). This is even true if they start asking for things that seem “adult” to you: “I think sometimes it seems precocious, but it may just be that they’re trying on different language [and ideas], just like they try on different personalities,” says Dr. Natterson.
Lastly, remember that puberty and adolescence are ongoing and ever-changing, and that means you can change, too—if you don’t like how you handled a conversation or a moment, you can tell your child that and ask to try again. “Do-overs allow us to recognize how different kids are and how different we are from day-to-day. Do-overs allow us to show kids how to fail and how to try again. Do-overs allow us another way in, because it’s never one conversation, it’s 25 conversations,” says Dr. Natterson. “Whatever the phrase ‘do-over’ means to a parent, that’s what I want them to take away [from the book].”
Cara Natterson, MD, is a pediatrician and the New York Times bestselling author of The Care and Keeping of You series (more than seven million copies in print), Guy Stuff, and Decoding Boys. A graduate of Harvard College and Johns Hopkins Medical School, Dr. Natterson founded Order of Magnitude, a company dedicated to flipping puberty positive. She co-hosts The Puberty Podcast, co-authors The Awkward Roller Coaster Newsletter (both with Vanessa Kroll Bennett), and founded Worry Proof, MD. Dr. Natterson lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two teenagers.
Vanessa Kroll Bennett is the founder of Dynamo Girl, a company focused on building kids’ self-esteem through sports, puberty education and parent workshops. She runs all media at Order of Magnitude, a company dedicated to flipping puberty positive. She co-hosts The Puberty Podcast (with Cara Natterson, MD), hosts Conversations on Parenting and Beyond at the JCC Manhattan, and writes the Uncertain Parenting Newsletter about the messy process of raising tweens and teens. A graduate of Wellesley College, Vanessa holds an MA from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She lives in Northern Westchester with her husband and four teens.