Many find that adolescence creeps up on their kids (and, by extension, them) way faster than they’d anticipated. They learn to use the potty, learn to read, slowly grow more independent and then — wham! — puberty.
“Tweens are facing profound changes when it comes to their bodies, their minds and their social spheres ... and it can be quite alarming to go through,” said Dr. Hina Talib, a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore and who runs a popular Instagram account specifically dedicated to teen health.
But experts like Talib believe parents can play a major role in helping their children navigate those often difficult tween and teen years. “Who better for them to turn to than the people closest to them to get information, advice and support, to be prepared for this profound change?” she said.
Which is both heartening and daunting to hear as a parent. So here are five common mistakes well-intentioned moms, dads and other caregivers make when talking to their children about puberty, and some thoughts on what to do instead.
Mistake #1: Waiting until puberty to talk about puberty.
For Talib, one of the biggest missteps parents tend to make is underestimating just how much of a role they play in preparing their children for puberty and adolescence — which means they then put off important conversations.
“I really want to empower parents and say, ‘You are such an important part of the preparation for this profound change,’” she said.
“Preparation” really is the key. Kids start grappling with what parents think of as strictly teenage stuff at much younger ages than parents often recognize. For example: Evidence suggests that some children begin experimenting with drugs and alcohol when they’re 9 or 10.
What to do instead: Start early. Experts like Talib don’t like to be too prescriptive about timetables. But these are conversations that can start (in developmentally appropriate ways) years before puberty begins.
“At age 5 or 6, children can understand their bodies change,” said Talib. So that can be a great time to start laying the groundwork for bigger physical changes to come by simply normalizing the fact that children’s bodies come in all different shapes and sizes — and that they change in different ways, at different points.
Also, “it is our obligation as trusted adults to teach children the anatomical terms for people’s bodies,” said Vanessa Bennett, founder of Dynamo Girl and author of the Uncertain Parenting Newsletter.
She noted that there are a few very practical reasons to do this as well. For one, it gives children the language they need if they’re ever injured or need to describe a particular type of pain. Also, research suggests that children who know the real names for their body parts may be less vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Mistake #2: Thinking this is all easier or more comfortable for other parents.
Parents sometimes drag their feet on having puberty-related talks simply because they can be uncomfortable, particularly if they weren’t conversations they had with their own caregivers growing up. But waiting until you’re comfortable can be a real mistake, because you may not fully get there — and that’s OK.
Also, know that avoiding these conversations can “unintentionally confer shame to that topic,” said Bennett, who added that she really likes to remind parents of the Fred Rogers notion that that which is mentionable is manageable.
What to do instead: Just accept that these conversations can be (and are!) tricky in various ways for just about everyone, Talib said.
Also, “fake it till you make it,” she urged. Just try to project as much calmness and confidence as you can, even if inside you’re a ball of nerves.
Mistake #3: Overloading kids with information.
Because these conversations can be uncomfortable, some parents feel like they need to arm themselves with lots of information.
“A big challenge for parents — myself included! — is that we’re so eager to give our kids good information, we’re so revved up to have ‘the talk’ with them, that there’s this huge inclination to lecture our kids,” said Bennett.
What to do instead: Consider starting with a question. “Let’s say you want to talk to your kid about masturbation. You could say something like, ‘Hey, I’m wondering if you’ve heard the word masturbation?’ If they say they have, then maybe follow up with something like, ‘Oh, OK! What do you know about it?’” she suggested.
The goal is to get a sense of what children think they know, and ultimately to open the door up to many more conversations that happen throughout adolescence. Also, don’t be afraid to tell your child if they’ve asked something that you simply do not know. Tell them you can look it up together, or that you will look into it and get back to them.
Use the resources that are available to you. Like, you might see something in a TV show that sparks a conversation. You can read a book about puberty aloud together, or pass it back and forth and flag any points of interest or question marks with a highlighter or sticky notes, Talib said.
Mistake #4: Not acknowledging how puberty and adolescence have changed (including access to porn!).
Parents sometimes try to work their own adolescent experiences into these conversations, and while anecdotes can help further normalize the experience, sometimes we can unintentionally overdo it.
“Social media and the prevalence of pornography has completely changed the landscape for tween and teen kids in this country,” said Bennett, who also noted that puberty starts earlier now than it once did as well.
What to do instead: First, just acknowledge that things have changed. And make sure family conversations around adolescence and puberty take into account kids’ new reality, like how ubiquitous porn is. (Experts say it is “inevitable” that children will look at porn, and surveys suggest that one-third of 11- to 14-year-olds have looked at porn on a mobile device.)
“The most important thing is that these are conversations that have no judgment,” Bennett said. Again, that’s not always easy, she said, noting that even Dynamo Girl offers puberty workshops — and even though she is deeply immersed in these topics — her “heart was racing and palms were sweating,” and that she had to “fake a chill tone” while recently talking to one of her own kids about what they knew about pornography and what they’d come across online.
So if you lose your cool, don’t forget the power of the do-over, Bennett said. “We will all mess up,” she added.
Mistake #5: Overlooking body image.
Parents who do a good job of talking their children through the physiology of puberty sometimes forget to delve into the more emotional side of all of this. In particular, they may forget to explicitly talk to children about what they’re feeling in terms of body image.
“Kids entering puberty feel insecure about their bodies and appearances, and that’s developmentally normal,” Talib said.
What to do instead: Directly talk to kids about body image at this sensitive point in their development. For example, “normalizing that teens gain weight during puberty is huge,” said Talib. As is simply normalizing the fact that they are not the only one of their peers with mixed (or negative) feelings about how their body looks right now.
“It’s really helpful to let teens know that their body may change at a different pace, or to a different degree than their friends, and to let them know that that’s normal,” Talib added.
Kids naturally compare themselves to other people, she said. Parents can really help them a lot by simply acknowledging that, making space for them to talk about it, and then working on some strategies to foster healthy body image.