Talking to your children about puberty, sexuality and their changing bodies may feel deeply uncomfortable, but these are crucial conversations that should happen early and often.
“When children are prepared for the physical changes they will experience when they start puberty, it can ease their anxiety about those changes,” said Cindy Pierce, a sex educator and author of “Sexploitation: Helping Kids Develop Healthy Sexuality in a Porn-Driven World.” “It is also helpful for kids who are late to develop to understand what they are observing in the kids around them. Without awareness or clear understanding, the arrival of pubic hair, body odor, breast buds, menstruation, random erections and nocturnal emissions can cause anxiety, distraction and shame.”
Educating children about these topics is an investment in their long-term sexual health and personal relationships with their bodies and future partners. If you’re a parent or caregiver, it’s important to ensure your kids are informed, prepared and supported when it comes to the changes bodies go through. But in the age of internet porn and social media, you cannot simply rely on your children’s schools to provide all of the information they need.
“If schools are teaching quality sex education that adheres to the National Sex Education Standards, then students should receive complete, accurate and inclusive information about puberty. However, state health education standards and school districts differ across the country, including many that have no requirement to teach puberty,” said Brittany McBride, associate director for sex education at Advocates for Youth.
Many children absorb inaccurate, non-inclusive or otherwise incomplete information about puberty and human bodies, so it’s on parents and caregivers to fill in the gaps or “unteach” certain messages.
But what exactly should they be aware of? Below, Pierce, McBride and other experts share eight things schools may teach about puberty that parents should be prepared to correct.
Myth: Gender stereotypes are the norm.
“In schools and districts that don’t adhere to the National Sex Education Standards, students may hear very gendered and stereotypical information about puberty and development ― ‘boys do this, girls do that’ ― that doesn’t reflect many families’ values and may ignore LGBTQ identities,” McBride said.
Many schools’ sex education programs generalize children’s experiences with puberty based on gender ― relying on traditional feminine stereotypes for girls or outdated masculine stereotypes for boys. This messaging upholds a very binary way of looking at gender and excludes young people who are nonbinary, trans, gender-nonconforming, intersex and queer.
“Parents need to supplement with more inclusive sex ed, and if they choose to avoid it, kids will likely search the internet for answers,” Pierce noted.
Myth: Puberty involves your body, not your brain.
“One thing that some puberty programs may miss is talking about adolescent brain development,” said Amy Lang, a sex education expert and founder of Birds And Bees And Kids. “It is so helpful for everyone to know that some of the behaviors that show up during puberty are because their brains are changing.”
She pointed to behaviors like being impulsive, forgetting things, staying up late and being grumpy as examples of development-related changes.
“This is all normal and kids should understand what’s going on so they don’t feel like there is something wrong with them.”
“Unfortunately, we have a lot of lawmakers and people in power who are making decisions about menstrual and reproductive health who never received inclusive puberty and sexual health education, and it shows!”
Myth: You don’t need to learn about other genders.
“When schools split the kids up and teach boys and girls separately, it sends a message that there is something secret or bad about other genders’ bodies,” Lang said. “When it comes to sexuality and sexual development, this is not a good message.”
She advised caregivers to talk openly and purchase books that address everyone’s bodily changes. Odds are they have friends with all different bodies and genders, so they should be able to learn about their experiences too.
“Young people need to learn about what can happen to different bodies and gender identities during puberty, not just the type of body parts or identity they possess,” said sex educator and Sex Positive Families founder Melissa Carnagey. “This helps them to be better informed and supportive of others. Unfortunately, we have a lot of lawmakers and people in power who are making decisions about menstrual and reproductive health who never received inclusive puberty and sexual health education, and it shows!”
Separating students based on assumed gender can be “misleading, ineffective and harmful for many reasons,” she added. This forces young people to choose a gender side and then receive limited information based on that choice. It also excludes nonbinary, trans, gender-nonconforming, intersex, and queer youths.
Myth: There’s no need to discuss puberty until you’re older — or ever.
“Schools are limited by what they can offer to younger students and are generally still sticking to the 5th grade and middle school sexuality education model of the pre-internet era,” Pierce said. “This is why it is essential that parents start the conversation years before schools teach sex ed.”
Due to the current internet and social media landscape, kids are often exposed to inaccurate information about puberty, sexuality and bodies at an early age. Parents need to offer themselves as trusted sources who will offer honest, accurate and developmentally appropriate information to counter the cultural messaging online or from peers without any shame or judgment. School sex ed should supplement the conversations already happening at home.
“Some kids start puberty at young ages,” McBride said. “The key is to talk with them about this before they are experiencing changes so they know the changes are normal and can respond to these changes in their body.”
Even those who don’t start puberty when they’re younger still notice body differences and changes in their peers. Carnagey recommended parents begin these discussions before or at least by the age of 8 so that they feel informed, prepared and normal when they experience puberty themselves.
“Resources like AMAZE, Every Body Curious, Six Minute Sex Ed Podcast, and books like “Vaginas and Periods 101: A Popup Book,” “The Every Body Book,” and “Wait, What?: A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up” all help to take the awkwardness out of puberty talks,” Carnagey said.
“Research confirms that kids who are informed with accurate information make healthier choices,” Pierce noted. “It is also important for parents to model the confidence to admit that they don’t have all the answers and show how to find reliable resources for answers to questions.”
Myth: Everyone is straight.
“Another area that probably needs more focus is in the area of sexual identification,” said Bethany Cook, a clinical psychologist and author of “For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting,” She noted that young people can benefit from learning about terms like bisexual, pansexual and queer.
“It will also be vital that current curriculums also have a discussion or two about understanding the difference between sexual identity ― how a person conceptualizes their own gender regardless of the sex organs they were born with ― and sexual orientation ― the type and sex of a person they find attractive,” Cook said.
Addressing LGBTQ issues should included identity and acceptance, as well as consent and safe sex for all.
Myth: Puberty can be covered in one talk.
“Puberty education in schools is often taught in a single, short class period, which can make it difficult for students to receive all of the information as well as get their true questions answered,” Carnagey said. “By keeping open talks about puberty at home, you better ensure your young person gets the support they need and they receive answers to their curiosities as they come up.”
Continuing the puberty talks at home allows your children to share their own experiences as their bodies change during their tween and teen years. Establish early on that you are a trusted source who can offer support, empathy and connection during times of change.
“[E]stablish that you’re an ‘askable parent’ ― someone kids can come to when they have questions.”
Carnagey also advised checking in with your child’s school to learn what information they are providing ― or not providing ― on the topic of bodies, puberty, consent and sexual health.
“Knowing this can help you remain clear about where you may need to supplement at home and whether to advocate for more comprehensive education for your child,” she said.
Myth: Personal hygiene doesn’t need to change.
Another aspect of puberty conversations at school that caregivers may need to correct is a lack of discussion about personal hygiene.
“Understanding puberty is part of self-hygiene,” said Reena B. Patel, a licensed educational psychologist and author of “Winnie & Her Worries.” She added that children may have noticed things their parents do for hygiene or may have accidentally walked in while they were taking a shower or going to the bathroom.
Explain the hormonal changes and how they affect things like sweat, hair growth, menstruation or wet dreams, and introduce the products that address these new hygiene considerations, such as deodorant and tampons. Again, these talks can happen early.
“Talking to kids about different kinds of families, safety and personal boundaries is something that can start when they are young children ― that’s a great time to learn the real names of body parts, and establish that you’re an ‘askable parent’ ― someone kids can come to when they have questions,” McBride said.
Myth: Sex is purely for procreation.
“Many sex ed teachers are forced into teaching the subject because they are the science teacher or the only or most willing of the teachers in that grade,” Pierce said. “This creates a recipe for below-average sex ed in schools. Many schools design the curriculum to cover puberty basics and the mechanics of sex with a focus on how babies are made, which reinforces heterosexuality as the norm and ignores the fact that most sex is for pleasure rather than procreation.”
Though the country has made progress in this regard, many school sex education programs ignore consent as well. Caregivers should emphasize bodily autonomy to promote children’s health and safety and help them understand boundaries as they grow into adults and engage in non-procreative sex.