We asked leading expert, Charlotte Markey, Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University, to answer this fantastic question from a Tooled Up mum. Professor Markey has published numerous academic studies in this field and has also written two amazing books on body image for tweens and teens which we highly recommend. Full details can be found at the end of this article.
Professor Markey says…
In movies, we tend to see moms having “the talk” about puberty and sex with their daughters and dads having this conversation with their sons. In real life, it doesn’t always work this way. Oftentimes, whichever parent is more comfortable or more available ends up discussing the birds and the bees with their kids. I actually think that there can be value in opposite-sex parents discussing these important developmental and health issues with their kids; one day these kids may have opposite-sex partners and there’s value in growing comfortable with discussing significant issues – even when they can be awkward at times – with the important people in our lives.
Having said all of that, I think this mom is already on the right track to being an excellent source of information and support for her son, just in acknowledging that she wants to be there for him. She could start off by telling her son some version of what she wrote in her question, “I’m here for you, you can come to me with questions or concerns.”
Here are a few practical tips for having conversations about puberty with pre-teen and teenage kids:
- Don’t say too much at once. No kid likes to be lectured by their parents, especially if it’s a topic that may be awkward.
- Talk about puberty and other important health issues early and often. A lot of small comments and conversations will prove more valuable (and easier!) than planning for “the talk.”
- Use television and movies you watch together as a segue into conversation about these issues. Comment on something you’re both watching and ask your child what he or she thinks about what the characters are doing or experiencing.
- Start a conversation in the car when your child is both stuck with you and you don’t have to look directly at each other. Having an excuse to not make eye contact can keep things surprisingly easier to discuss.
- Make good, evidence-based books available to your kids. They will pretend they aren’t looking at them and will balk when they see a book show up in their room, but they’ll look. This gives you a bit of control over the content that they are going to see and offers them an alternative to looking online.
- Ask what they are learning in school. This can be important to your own conversations; you can build on what they’ve already learned or use school lessons as an opportunity for discussion.
- Don’t be afraid to use humour. These are serious issues, but it’s better to laugh at some of the awkwardness and for all involved to grow to find these conversations fun and useful than dreaded and overly serious.
- Don’t over-rely on your own experiences when you were an adolescent. Although us parents tend to think that our adolescence was just yesterday, we may seem ancient and out of touch to our kids. And our kids are legitimately having different experiences than we did.
- Be sure to ask questions and listen. Often, we want to be the authority and we want to tell our children what to do and how to feel. But as they get older, it becomes increasingly obvious that they are their own people. If we want to get to know who they are and support them, we have to ask questions and we have to listen.
In terms of content, there are some issues that are particularly important to discuss with our boys:
- Consent. This wouldn’t be the first issue I’d tackle with my son, but it may be one of the most important. It is not unusual for adolescents’ first sexual experiences to be unplanned; they tend to be rather opportunistic creatures. It’s important that boys understand that consent is the absolute least that’s necessary before having any sexual encounter with any partner. Conversations about safety and relationship issues are also incredibly important.
- Safety. Speaking of safety, many teachers and schools cover issues pertaining to safe sex well, but not all do. Talking about safe sex is not the same thing as condoning adolescent sexual behaviour (the research is very clear that talking about this does not make teens interested in having sex; usually they are already interested!). It’s important that young people know how to access contraception and information that will contribute to their responsible sexual behaviours.
- Pornography. The average first time that boys view pornography is at 11 years of age. They are curious and pornography is incredibly easy to find online. It’s also much more explicit (and often aggressive) than the pornography of a generation ago. It is important to not shame kids for their curiosity, but to make sure that they understand that if they watch pornography, they are not watching accurate portrayals of adult intimacy. Everything, from the way that people interact with each other in pornography (often with men being dominant and sometimes domineering), to the appearances of people featured in pornography (portraying beauty ideals without a single hair anywhere but their heads), are problematic depictions of sexual encounters. Kids need to be told about these problems with pornography.
- Media literacy. It’s not just pornography that’s problematic. We need to make sure to let kids know that what they see on the internet or on social media in general is not necessarily accurate (see my point above regarding books as resources). Online articles and posts are often not reviewed or evaluated and may provide misleading or even inaccurate information about puberty and sexuality. We want our kids to appreciate this and to realise that we can be reliable sources of information. All the better if we steer them towards reliable sources online (such as this one!).
- Normalise physical change. Everyone’s body changes with age, and this is especially true during puberty. Some of the changes are welcome, some of them are not. It’s important that we help our kids to understand that what they are experiencing may feel uncomfortable or strange at times, but it is completely normal.
As our kids make their way through adolescence, they are increasingly likely to turn to their friends for conversations about important issues. This is developmentally appropriate, even though it may feel a bit hurtful at times. What is important is that they know they can come to us to discuss anything and that we’ll do our best to answer their questions honestly.
Professor Charlotte Markey, 2023.
If you are a Tooled Up parent, you can access any of our resources on the issues raised by Professor Markey. The library is packed full of tip sheets, activities, podcasts and webinars on digital and media literacy, pornography, consent, healthy relationships and body image, including two podcast interviews with Professor Markey!
We also very highly recommend her fantastic books for boys and girls, which cover issues of body image, puberty, diet, exercise, self-care, mental health, social media, and everything in-between. They are exactly the kind of evidence-based, reliable and informative reads that we need to make available to our children. They are also extremely readable and visually engaging. We love them!