Ages and Stages- When to talk about puberty

By Dr. Rhonda Patt October 10, 2019

Many parents shudder when they hear the word “puberty.”  It may even evoke a bit of fear or anxiety thinking about having “the talk'', however, what most parents may not realize is that the conversation starts sooner than they may think.  Setting the stage for the more difficult conversations that occur during those teenage years starts during the preschool years.  

Preschool age (3-5 years):  

By the age of 3 years, most children have started to notice gender differences.  They may notice that women and men have different body types and body parts.  When children in this age group ask questions, answers can still be more general and broad.  For example, if a child asks why mommies have breasts, it would be reasonable to say that they are to feed babies and are a normal part of becoming a woman.  It is not necessary at that point to get into the details of reproduction.  

Two other important topics for preschoolers are  the difference between “good touches and bad touches” and understanding “private parts.”  If your child attends preschool, these topics are often addressed there as well.  This can be as simple as explaining that the parts of the body that are covered by a bathing suit are their private body parts and when it is important to have these body parts covered.  Good touches and bad touches would be focused more on empowering a child to let his parent know if he is being touched in any way that makes him feel sad, scared or angry.

Early School Age (6-8 years)

Sometime between ages 6 and 8 years, most children will start to become more modest and desire privacy when bathing or changing clothes.  This is a normal part of development and oftentimes will be the moment when family baths or showers naturally come to an end.  As a parent, it is important to be supportive and not tease or scold a child for wanting some boundaries.

These early school age years are also when children start to ask about how babies are made.  At this stage in development, it is still reasonable to answer very generally and in terms that are understandable to a child of this age.  Early school age children are generally curious and not really looking for the details of the mechanics of it all.  For example, a parent could say that some babies are adopted and some babies are carried inside the mom’s tummy.  

Pre-adolescence (9-11 years)

Between the ages of 9 and 11 years, many children will start to have signs of puberty.  Girls, in general, start showing signs of puberty earlier than boys.  

During these three precious years, most girls will start needing deodorant and wearing training bras.  Although the average age for the first menstrual period is 12 years, it is considered normal to have a period as early as age 10.  For this reason, the details of puberty conversations will vary depending on the child’s pubertal development. Girls’ bodies are rapidly changing during this time.  Parents may notice some abdominal weight gain which typically precedes the child’s fastest growth spurt.  This is a vulnerable time for body image issues so parents should continue to emphasize health without teasing or criticizing the child’s changing body.

Boys are generally a little older before they start having body odor and puberty changes, but there is a wide range of normal for boys as well.  

For all of these reasons, hygiene and self-care are important topics for the pre-adolescent:  showering, dental care, and sleep.

By the end of the pre-adolescent years, “the talk” should have occurred.  Some schools include reproductive education in their curriculum and some do not.  If the school does not cover the topic, then parents need to recognize that they shoulder the full responsibility.  When schools include this topic in their curriculum, it allows parents to use the curriculum as a conversation-starter.  Either way, it is important for parents to have a conversation.  Having these “awkward” talks in an attempt to normalize the subject of puberty and reproduction will help open lines of communication between parent and child as the topic becomes more emotionally complicated.

Adolescence (Ages 12 and up)

Once a child hits adolescence, the timing of certain conversations is going to vary from child to child/ teen to teen.  But at this point, some vital topics to cover would include “sexting,” menstruation, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections.  This is also the age when the risks of alcohol, nicotine and drugs should be a part of the conversation that parents are having with their children.  

Teens start pulling away from parents and relying more on the opinions and acceptance of their peers.  So guidance on adolescent choices should start sooner than later before the window of opportunity narrows.  

Because adolescence brings on so many challenges for parents, each of these topics will be covered separately in upcoming articles.

Dr. Rhonda Patt is a pediatrician at Charlotte Pediatric Clinic Southpark and an Assistant Specialty Medical Director for Atrium Health Levine Children’s.  Her special interests include infant sleep development and the role that parents play in social and emotional resilience in children. When not at work, she enjoys spending time with her husband and three children.  

Twitter: @mommy_doc

Instagram: RhondaPattMD

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