It's a moment many parents dread and postpone for as long as possible: having The Talk with their son or daughter about puberty and all the bodily changes that come with that hormone-fuelled stage of life — from breast buds and periods to pubic hair and wet dreams.
But experts say casually introducing the topic before those pubescent changes begin occurring can help ease discomfort and awkward moments for both parents and kids.
Meg Hickling, a retired nurse and sex educator in Vancouver, believes it's never too early to start teaching kids about the human body and all its functions.
"When you start talking about sexual health, as we call it — that's naming the body parts and talking about how they work — the children are so much more at ease as they go through elementary school age," she says. "And when it comes to talking about puberty, it's no problem at all because they're so used to talking about bodies and so forth."
Dr. Megan Harrison, a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario who specializes in adolescent health, says a key reason for tackling the subject earlier than later is so girls and boys will know what to expect when they begin the transition from childhood to adulthood.
"The age we usually suggest to start short conversations about the body changes that occur in puberty is by the age of seven or eight. For most kids that's before changes start.
"If they've heard about some of the stages and then the stages happen, they're reassured that they're normal, and 'Yes, Mom and Dad told me this is going to happen.'"
Putting off the puberty/sex conversation can mean curious kids might seek information elsewhere — from their peers or on the Internet — but that can mean getting incorrect information, Harrison says.
"Kids actually want to hear this stuff from their parents, but there's so many more opportunities now with media for them to get it elsewhere. So it's even more important for parents to open that first window of the discussion."
For younger children, bedtime is a great time to broach the subject of the birds and bees, "because they'll do anything to stop you leaving the room and turning off the light," says Hickling, author of "The New Speaking of Sex: What Your Children Need to Know and When They Need to Know It."
Parents who aren't quite sure how to introduce what they see as a thorny topic could pick up one of several books on puberty and sex aimed at kids and read it with their child, she says. "Sometimes having a book is the easiest way to do it."
"The other one that is good is in the car," says Hickling, especially for older kids who may feel embarrassed about discussing the facts of life with their parents and dodge such conversations.
"The car is wonderful because they're captive. They can't go anywhere. They may stare out the side window. They may say, 'Oh, do we have to talk about this?'"
The answer is "Yes, we do," she insists, adding that Mom or Dad should persevere and let their son or daughter know that the information being imparted is meant to prepare them for adulthood and keep them safe.
For a child who squirms at the mere idea of having The Talk, Harrison suggests giving them a book on the subject, perhaps leaving it in the bathroom where they can absorb the contents in privacy and at their own pace, and offering to answer any questions.
"And then just keep checking in with them. I think when most parents do have the conversation, they're kind of relieved at how well things go."
So what do kids need to know as their bodies move toward puberty?
For girls, Harrison says the signs of puberty can begin anywhere between age eight and 13, starting with breast development, the appearance of fine pubic hair and body odour. Females also usually have a growth spurt around this time.
Between nine and 15, the breasts will enlarge and the pubic hair will increase in volume and grow coarser and curlier. During the final stage of puberty, a girl will get her first menstrual period, on average at age 12, she says.
Preparing a daughter for her first period by explaining what to expect and how to deal with it will ease her anxiety if that watershed event occurs while she's away from home, for instance, at school or at the mall or movies with friends.
And it isn't just Mom a daughter should be able to turn to for advice, says Harrison. "I think it's comforting for a girl to know her dad knows about a period, knows what that is and knows how to help her if Mom's out of the house."
For boys, the manifestations of puberty begin slightly later, between age nine and 15. The testes begin enlarging and boys start emitting body odour. Between 11 and 16, the penis enlarges, pubic hair begins sprouting and a boy will experience wet dreams, or nighttime ejaculation.
"What tips off puberty is a cascade of a number of hormones that start to mature, and for boys wet dreams are often the body actually getting the hormones working normally and that's the result of it," says Harrison, noting that these dreams aren't necessarily sexual in nature.
From 11 to 17, a boy's genitals continue enlarging, pubic hair increases and coarsens, the voice changes, and facial hair starts growing. It's at this point that males typically go through a major growth spurt.
And like girls, pubescent males get breast buds — a development that Hickling says can really throw a young boy who's unaware that that can happen (and one that usually disappears within six months to two years).
"A lot of them think they're dying of breast cancer, so it's really important to talk to boys as well as girls about breast budding," she says, recalling that when she told kids during sex education classes that everyone gets breast buds and sore, tender nipples, "it would be the boy's shoulders that would sag with relief most notably."
Parents may also notice their previously even-tempered child begins exhibiting mood swings, which Hickling calls the "sads, glads and mads," in part because of the surge of estrogen, testosterone and other hormones.
The physical and psychological changes of impending adulthood, when they do come, can leave some parents reeling, she says. "I've had countless parents say, 'I can't believe my baby's growing up.' And they're so shocked, and yet it's perfectly normal to have kids going into puberty any time after the age of seven."
"So I think that both parents and kids need to learn how to celebrate the changes in life, even if it does mean that your child is getting older and so are you."
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