Let’s play word association with ‘puberty’. For me, it was: lowered voices, shooting limbs, hair in new places, and the age? 14.
As it turns out, puberty can come much sooner than that. In fact, it can start from as early as 8 for girls, and 1 or 2 years later for boys. There may even be emotional signs before physical ones.
I know what you’re thinking, though. Not my baby!
The first talk
This is what went through my mind when we were at the doctor’s last year, when Alex was 9. We were there for some infection or other, but since it had been a while since we’d seen the doctor, she started explaining puberty to Alex in a very matter-of-fact way.
“Your private parts will get bigger, and you may feel a lot of emotions that you don’t understand. You might get very excited, very angry, or very sad. The important thing to know is that it’s perfectly normal. You can talk to your parents about it, or you can call me and talk to me.”
This wasn’t the first he’d heard about this. We had broached the subject before, in response to questions he had when he was younger (e.g. “How do you make a baby?”). But hearing about it from a different, professional grown-up gave it a formal legitimacy. He squirmed, of course, and said he didn’t have any other questions.
I was mostly amused, thinking it a little premature and only relevant in the coming years. After all, he still smelled like a baby, and though his legs started to have thicker hair, he still looked like a little boy.
As with a lot of things related to parenthood, I got that wrong.
Like any child, Alex can be very good at lying and hiding his emotions. Unlike other children however, I suspect Alex carries the burden of guilt more heavily. At various points of his life, he has burst out of his room after bedtime in tears, confessing something he’s kept a secret from us.
His two most recent confessions are definitely signs that puberty is upon us.
The first was that he had looked up pictures of a specific actress in a bikini on Google and YouTube . He was so upset with himself for having done this, thinking himself a bad person by objectifying a woman (my son the feminist!).
The second was the revelation that he’d been having dreams about girls. This made him feel, in his words, “comfortable,” which he somehow felt was wrong.
What to say
In both these situations, we told him it was totally normal and not at all wrong to have these feelings. He seemed reassured enough to say to me: “Ok mummy, let’s stop talking about this now because it’s getting awkward.”
Since then, I’ve done some digging and found some useful resources:
- Educate yourself and your kids about puberty with animated videos that you can watch with them or let them watch by themselves at Amaze. The message that keeps coming up is “It’s normal if X happens, but it’s also normal if it doesn’t happen” and “It can be different for everyone”. They even have a site for how to talk to younger children, which paves the way for open communication about puberty and sex education when they’re older.
- If you want to be in a situation where you don’t have to make eye contact while making sure there’s a space for discussion, get in your car and listen to this podcast All about puberty. It carries an important message about how our bodies aren’t the be-all and end-all of our identities.
- Use humour to approach this topic by watching this light-hearted video (involving different fruit sizes) at Every Body Curious. Set in a classroom, the video comes complete with a Q&A with the kids and experts.
- Remember the importance of building up your child’s sense of self to help them weather the emotional storms of puberty. Positive reinforcement may seem counterintuitive when your child is rebelling, but it is vital. Many of us growing up in Asian cultures may not have experienced this much, which is why it’s all the more important to be aware of how crucial it is. Read more in this article about puberty and self-esteem.
The most important thing is not to make puberty shameful and keep open communication channels between your child and you. Then, if your child should have a sudden late-night confession too, they should feel safe and secure in coming to you.