Here’s When You Should Start Talking To Your Kid About Puberty

Discussing puberty with children can empower them, strengthen their ability to recognize inappropriate behavior and foster healthy relationships.

I was a kid who couldn’t wait to grow up. I was fascinated by teenagers, read every Judy Blume book in my elementary school library and was thrilled when, in the summer after fifth grade, my mom packed maxi pads in my camp bag “just in case.” She had gotten her period at 11 and told me it was possible that I would as well.

But much to my disappointment, those just-in-case pads weren’t needed that summer, or even the one after that. Despite what I had hoped, I didn’t get my period until the incredibly average age of 13.

Nevertheless, plenty of kids do start puberty on the early side, whether they want to or not, and talking to them about what is on the horizon well before this happens is a key part of helping them grow up confident, informed and safe.

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Discussing puberty with children can empower them, strengthen their ability to recognize inappropriate behavior and foster healthy relationships.

When should puberty talks begin?

Puberty may start earlier than many adults expect. This is partly due to the fact that the age of pubertal onset has been decreasing over the past few decades. Children today may begin puberty, indicated by breast development and testicular enlargement, at ages as young as 8 for those assigned female at birth and 9 for those assigned male at birth. Starting before these ages is generally categorized as precocious puberty, a condition that affects approximately 1% of the population.

This changing puberty landscape is one of the many reasons that proactive discussions are needed. In my house, those conversations have been happening since my kids were toddlers. They started with naming body parts and continued with more and more information about how those parts would develop as they got older.

For David Hu, a professor at Georgia Tech University and the author of “The P Word,” a children’s book about penises, conversations in his family also started when his children were relatively young.

“My kids are 12 and 13, and we started talking about puberty on and off over the years,” he said. “When they were 6-8, they asked why their bodies were different than adult bodies. Then when we started to see the signs, we talked about it regularly.”

Contrary to common fears, discussing puberty with children before physical changes occur isn’t going to harm them. Sure, it might be a little awkward, but awkwardness is a small price to pay for the benefits that come with filling in information gaps and allaying fears and worries.

Plus, parents should know they don’t have to make up a script on the fly. There is a lot of support available for caregivers. For example, the website Sex Positive Families has an excellent resource section that breaks down topics by age, and the organization Amaze, which produces puberty and sex education videos, has a playlist geared toward children ages 4 to 9 and their parents.

Talking is protective.

Beyond personal preparation, discussing puberty with young kids has a number of other benefits. Lori Reichel, a health educator and host of “The Puberty Prof” podcast, emphasizes that early conversations lay the groundwork for increasingly complex later ones.

“If we can’t talk about basic stuff with kids, then how will they come to us when things get more challenging in the future?” she said. “Say, if they are thinking of having sex or if they have questions about their identity?”

Additionally, having open conversations with young kids is one of the ways we can help protect them from potential sexual abuse. Everyday conversations about the sexual and reproductive organs help kids learn that talking about those parts is not taboo and that they have trusted adults they can turn to if problems arise or boundaries are crossed.

Overall, discussing puberty with children in a supportive and informative manner can empower them, strengthen their ability to recognize inappropriate behavior and foster healthy relationships built on trust and communication.

The benefits of inclusive language.

When discussing puberty, aim to use inclusive language whenever possible. Often adults try to reassure kids by saying things like, “Don’t worry, all girls will get their periods during puberty,” or “As a boy, you’ll experience changes like growing facial hair and having a deep voice.” However, it’s important to understand that such blanket statements can inadvertently exclude children who are transgender, intersex or have certain medical conditions.

Transgender and gender-diverse kids might have questions about how puberty applies to them. So it’s essential to clarify that, regardless of gender identity, individuals with uteruses, ovaries and vaginas can experience menstruation, while those with testicles and penises can produce sperm.

It is also really important to include kids with physical disabilities, medical conditions or cognitive delays in puberty conversations. Consulting with a specialist who understands your child’s situation can help you and them prepare for the changes and know how to deal with them.

Similarly, for parents and caregivers of neurodiverse kids, thinking about how to talk about puberty before diving into the conversation can be a game changer. Victoria Ellen Whiting is a neurodiverse author who wrote “The Autistic Guide to Puberty: A Practical Survival Handbook” to fill what she saw as a gap in autistic resources. She advises parents to remember that just as every autistic person is different, so too will be the puberty experiences of individual kids on the spectrum. As a result, she explained, a lot of figuring out what works for your child will be through trial and error.

“Just be prepared for things not to go as planned. Autistic traits can be heightened during puberty, so make yourself aware of resources which can help you (and your child) to navigate puberty,” she said.

All children will benefit from inclusive conversations about puberty. But for some kids, particularly those with diverse or marginalized identities, or children with distinct needs, this practice is crucial.

Navigating the unknown can be overwhelming for children, especially when what is unknown is what is happening to their bodies. But as Hu said, “Talking about puberty is like commenting on the weather. Both are in a constant state of change, but both affect what they will wear today.”

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