I know it’s not nice to torment a 14-year-old boy. But sometimes I can’t help it. I am compelled to utter the phrase “just around the corner” in conversation, knowing the response it will elicit in my older son, Sebastian—a cry of feigned, Charlie Brown-style anguish: “Aaugh!”
“Going around the corner” has been our family’s euphemism for puberty for seven years, ever since my daughter, Louisa, watched THE video in fourth grade. Yes, that video, where the kids learn about all the physical and emotional changes they can expect to endure during adolescence. Students in our school district watch the “Just Around the Corner” video again in fifth grade, but the second time they learn about the opposite sex. Then, all the kids receive sample sizes of deodorant, toothpaste, and mouthwash in a gift box that proclaims: Welcome to puberty!
No matter how well you package it, it’s difficult to avoid awkwardness and embarrassment when discussing puberty with your kids. I’ve found that it helps to keep your sense of humor. It also helps to start early, by being honest and open with your kids about the human body, and by answering questions as best as you can—even though the perfect answers can seem elusive. Because if you save all of your parental wisdom for that hypothetical day when the stars align and you suddenly know it’s the perfect time for the Big Talk (well, assuming that day ever arrives), it will likely be too late.
Dr. Donna Block, founder of the Edina-based Clinic Sofia, says parents begin building a foundation for open conversations with their teens when their children are still toddlers, by using the real words for body parts, instead of slang; and by responding to a child’s questions with simple, age-appropriate answers. For example, if a little girl notices her mom’s breasts and asks if she will get breasts, too, the mom can explain that, yes, the daughter will when she’s older.
“Depending on how old they are, they may become distracted and move on. You only answer the questions they have at the time,” she says.
Preparing for the inevitable
Puberty usually starts way before parents are ready for it—between the ages of eight and 13 for girls, and between 10 and 15 for boys. Most girls start menstruating between the ages of 12 and 13 (about two and a half years after they first start developing breast buds), but some start as early as age nine, and others as late as 15 or 16. For boys, the first sign of puberty is growth of their testicles, which usually starts by about age 12.
Dr. Jewelia Wagner, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Clinic Sofia, says parents should be prepared to provide practical information about things like menstruation as soon as they notice signs that their child is entering puberty.
“What I suggest to moms is that as a situation comes up and their daughter asks questions about it—like a friend gets her period—that’s when you address it,” she says.
Once a girl begins to menstruate, her parents should make sure she understands the physical changes she’s doing through, and if they’re not comfortable discussing it, Wagner says, they can arrange for their daughter to talk to her doctor so she will feel reassured that what she’s going through is normal.
“The important thing is that the young woman is comfortable with those changes, and realizes these are beautiful things that are happening,” she says.
There are plenty of engaging, informative books out there that can help convey information parents feel uncomfortable sharing, or that can reinforce points they’ve already discussed; examples include the American Girl’s The Care and Keeping of You: the Body Book for Girls, and the American Medical Association’s Boy’s Guide to Becoming a Teen.
Once a girl is between the ages of 13 and 15, it can be good time for her to visit her doctor to talk about what will happen when she has her first pelvic exam. But unless she is having menstrual or other gynecological problems or is sexually active, Block says, most girls don’t begin having pelvic exams until they are seniors in high school or are leaving for college.
Parents should encourage both their sons and their daughters to become more involved in their health care as they grow, so when they do finally turn that corner, they have the tools and confidence they need to navigate toward a healthy adulthood.
Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to [email protected].