Bells of alarm ring in a parent’s head at the very mention of the word. Not only is time running out for “The Big Talk” but what exactly happens and when. It all happened so long ago in a lifetime before kids, before partners, even before high school. What information should you give? What information is most important to children?

I will give you some ideas based on years of experience teaching hundreds of classes of ten to twelve year old students. I wish to qualify, however, that I am not the expert – the children are. Their concerns and questions are what lead me to the information that is most important to impart. I am in the privileged position of being barraged with innumerable questions and the challenge of answering them. This article will present you with the facts and language I use to answer the most common questions and concerns. It will be up to you, however, to add the essential values which you as a parent, have a responsibility to impart. The most difficult part of being a sexual health educator is to walk the fine line of imparting basic social values without offending anyone’s strongly held religious, cultural or family beliefs. The most difficult part and most essential part of being a parent is to impart well-considered values on a myriad of sexual health issues which, after some experimentation, children most often return to as young adults.

Commonly, children want to know that what they are experiencing is “normal”. They think that they are the “only ones”. For days, weeks, months or even years they worry about physical and emotional changes. One of the most important reasons to give them accurate information is to relieve their anxiety

Playing with friends, let alone being surrounded by sexual images portrayed in the media, give children numerous sources of misinformation. Parents need to clarify what kids understand to be true, clear up the myths and clearly discuss the facts. As all parents know, there comes a time when the information a parent gives may not be considered by the curious child who is broadening her social horizons as knowledgeable as those other sources. It is a sad day for a parent when he or she realizes that their child who took every word they uttered as gospel truth, thinks that maybe the parent doesn’t know everything after all. This is another reason to impart facts early, before your word gets seriously questioned.

The playground talk also means that jokes, silliness and sometimes vulgarity becomes attached to anything sexual. Kids begin to close down – they don’t want to hear about the facts. They are embarrassed and react to the information with hoots of, “Oh, that’s so gross” or, worse for the well-meaning parent, “You’re so gross”. This makes imparting your words of wisdom even more difficult. Talking early before they are exposed to social taboos while they still think genitalia is hilarious is much easier. At least you can then laugh along.

A final reason to give them the facts early is that children to begin to experience some of the signs of puberty before you have imparted the information and what to expect may come to the conclusion that if you don’t talk about it you obviously don’t know anything about it or you don’t want to for some reason. This shuts the door. If a child has reached this conclusion they won’t ask any questions and the parent who is waiting for a cue from the child to begin talking will be disappointed.

Also, with puberty changes comes a much more self-conscious child who will be embarrassed to bring up the topic. I often talk to parents who are disappointed that their child does is reluctant to talk about puberty at home when they are learning it at school. To the question, “What did you learn in puberty today?”, the parent receives a monosyllable reply, “Nothing”. I assure the parent that the child really did learn something and suggest that instead of asking questions the parent tell the child something about their own experience of puberty or puberty education including how you felt about it. This takes the onus of the child to relate information and lets him know that you have gone through this and that you were disgusted, amazed, embarrassed, curious or self-conscious to. Don’t expect an hour long discussion in response but assure your child that you are around to talk to and you understand some of the feelings.

Finally, one very wise mother told me that she expects that at some point her child will be reluctant to talk to her about his sexual life. She let him know that she would always be there to listen (advise to be given only on the request of the child) but that if he didn’t want to ask her that would be o.k. Together they chose a neighbour, relative or professional who the mother trusted and who’s values were similar to her own and who the son felt comfortable talking to. They agreed that the child would approach this person with questions or concerns. This seems to me to be a realistic and insightful alternative the message received by the child being an acknowledgement of privacy around sexuality and caring enough about the child’s well-being to ensure an available person to listen, advise and assist with problem-solving.

The conclusion then is to talk early, before a child begins to experience puberty. Don’t wait for questions. Begin talking about sexuality before social taboos are attached and keep talking. Clear up misinformation. Alleviate anxiety. Impart your values and the facts. Ensure that your child has other resources available that you trust, including books. Use humour in response to your child’s hilarity.

What is puberty? Puberty refers to the physical changes which take place to change a child’s body into a reproductive adult’s body. Adolescence, another word which sends shivers up a parent’s spine, refers to the emotional and social changes which also take place during and after puberty. The pituitary gland starts the whole process off by producing hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers in the body which regulate many different processes in our bodies including but not limited to sexuality.

On average white, North American girls begin puberty between 9 and 13 years old and boys between 11 and 14 years old. It is important that children understand what “average” means. In simple terms, if you took all the girls in the world, for instance, most of them would experience the first signs of puberty between 9 and 13 years old but many would begin before 9 and many would begin after 13 and this would be normal for their bodies. Through many world wide studies, onset of puberty varies with race, ethnicity, environmental conditions, geographical location and nutrition. On average, African-American girls show begin puberty about one year earlier with 48% having shown breast and/or pubic hair growth by 8 years old. On average boys begin puberty between 11 and 14 years of age, approximately two years after girls.

A common misperception about onset of puberty are what sign(s) signify it’s beginning. Often the first menses or period for girls and the ability to ejaculate in boys are the signs are noted as the signs of puberty. Although obviously important, pubertal changes start at least one to two years prior to these signs in both boys and girls. A growth spurt, pubic hair growth and breast growth (in girls) most often are the earliest signs.

Based on a classic early study, the process of puberty has been divided into five stages as follows:

Stage 1 involves a growth spurt when girls may grow as much as 3-5 inches/year, leveling off gradually.
Stage 2: Initial breast growth, called breast buds. Thin, straight and sparse growth of pubic hair.
Stage 3: Armpit hair growth. Darker and longer hair growth on the arms and legs.
Stage 4: Sweating more under the arms, on palms and feet, around vagina. Body odour. Oilier skin and hair. Pimples.
Stage 5: First menses. Sexual feelings. Continued breast growth. Growth plateaus.

Stage 1: No signs of puberty.
Stage 2: Sleepy. Increased appetite. Scrotum gets more wrinkly, bigger and hangs lower. Testicles grow. Skin on penis gets darker. Initial signs of pubic hair growth.
Stage 3: Penis gets longer. Voice changes begin with “cracking”. Growth spurt of about 4-6 inches/year. Muscular growth.
Stage 4: Broadening shoulders. Sweating more. Body odour. Oilier skin and hair. Pimples. Penis gets thicker. More erections sometimes for no sexual reason. Ejaculation. Beginning of facial hair growth on upper lip.
Stage 5: Skull becomes longer. Growth slows. Thicker facial hair (may continue thickening into 20’s) May grow body hair on chest, shoulders, back.

It is important to note that these changes occur together gradually over three to five years. There are wide variations between children. Often a child may progress through puberty in a similar way to a parent or aunts/uncles. This is yet another reason why parents should talk to their children about their own puberty experiences. Remember, though, that your child’s experience is based on many factors not just their genetic background or what they have inherited.

I’d like to make a few comments on some of the pubertal changes based on what I know children are concerned about. The growth spurt begins with the feet. Children begin to grow out of their shoes quickly. They may appear clumsy and trip more often. Athletic kids may find that their abilities decrease for awhile. This is frustrating for some although absolutely normal. Gradually as the rest of the body catches up and their brain adjusts, their clumsiness will lessen and their athletic prowess return.

Some boys experience a small amount of breast growth related to body adjustments to hormones and/or their bodies getting thicker before they have a growth spurt. Boys worry that they have breast cancer (a very unusual occurrence in a male of any age) or that they are turning into a girl. Neither is the case and the breast growth usually goes away.

As males are often worried about penis size through their lives, so females are worried about breast size. It is important to assure girls that breasts of any size can fulfill their purpose of breastfeeding. Breasts come in all shapes and sizes. As for penises most adult, erect penis are 5-7 inches long. They only need to be about 2-3 inches long to successfully deposit semen into the vagina. Studies have revealed that women do not care about penis length in their lovers and that men with a longer penis are not more virile. Penises and many breasts for that matter that children may see in magazines or on the internet are computerized “add ons”.

Some girls experience a small amount of facial hair growth usually limited to fine dark hairs on the upper lip. This bothers most girls. As their bodies become more used to hormonal ups and downs this hair growth subsides and may lighten. Girls should be told not to shave. Hair will not grow back darker or thicker but it will be a bit whisker for a short time which will not appear to the girl. If she is very self-conscious about hair growth, refer to a doctor or a licensed beautician.

Menstruation is a major source of curiosity for both boys and girls. Girls want to know any pointers you can give them including how to use pads and tampons; what to do when swimming; cramps, back ache and moodiness; how to make sure the tampon goes in the vagina as opposed to the urethra; going to the bathroom with a tampon in; how to unwrap a tampon or pad in a public washroom without making any noise; how much blood comes out over how long a time etc. The list goes on.

Wet dreams are a source of concern for boys as well. Some boys who do not know about ejaculation may try to stop the semen from coming out. This can result in an inflammation of the testicles – another reason to talk. During ejaculation, including wet dreams only one teaspoon of semen comes out. Although there are about two hundred to five hundred, million sperm in this teaspoon, it does not leave a large stain or mark. The fluid is white and thick. All parents know that this may happen and there is no need to be embarrassed. Boys who regularly masturbate to ejaculation may not experience wet dreams. Both boys and girls will masturbate and need to know that many people choose to do this. Although some cultures and religions discourage masturbation, there is no health reason to avoid it.

Children want practical details about how to handle pubertal changes. What kind of razors to use and how to use them, how to take care of acne and body odour, how often to have a shower are some of the practicalities to include.

Don’t forget the dramatically swinging emotions that accompany these changes. Not only does it help you survive the process if you understand that anger, moodiness and a sudden dislike of parents or embarrassment to be around them is normal but the children are often confused and afraid of the sudden changes in their emotions and feelings.

Social changes in relationships with parents and friends are also important to accept and discuss. Of course, sexual interest in relationships is a new and confusing part of puberty which happens at different times for different children. Homosexuality is a concern for all children no matter what their sexual orientation.

This brief article will give you a place to start discussing puberty with your child. It is a mistake to think that their reaction to puberty will be similar to our own. The world has changed a great deal. The pressures and risks they are exposed to are different than our own. Exposure to much more explicit and sophisticated messages in the media and sexualization of children has a profound influence on their understanding of their own burgeoning sexuality.

Sally O’Neill and Joanne Anderson

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