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As they reach adolescence, kids experience physical, psychological and social transitions that they may not expect or know how to handle—a big challenge for them and their parents.
So how can you, the parent, make the ride less bumpy? Give open and honest communication a try. Showing your pre-teen and teens that it’s ok to come to you with questions—that you’re willing to answer them honestly and openly—will do wonders for both your relationship and for your kid’s future.
Having these talks won’t be easy. You may be caught off-guard by a question or jump quickly to conclusions. “With my own kids, I've stopped in my tracks at times and felt unprepared, even though I can practically teach this subject in my sleep,” explains Mary Patterson, Professional Community Instructor at Stanford Children’s Health. “The first rule is always, just breathe. Don’t react. Don’t explode or run away screaming. Stand there, take a deep breath, and respond with love.”
Patterson, incidentally, along with other instructors, gives this kind of advice at Heart To Heart, The Chat, Teen Transitions, and Smart Sendoffs, a series of classes offered by Stanford Children's Health that helps pre-teens, teens, and parents navigate these years of change. From puberty to peer pressure to preparation for going off to college, these classes spotlight the challenges of growing up, and provide information and time for family conversations in a fun and factual way. (The classes, previously in-person, have gone virtual for the foreseeable future, allowing families from all over to join.)
As covered in the classes, here are some important topics you should consider when talking with your pre-teen or teen—and some ideas to make the experience a bit easier for all.
From a young age, kids start asking questions about their bodies—and even yours. Though it may throw you or make you uncomfortable, parents need to normalize these conversations early on.
“While some parents may find a book and hand it to their child or decide to read it with them, others normalize these conversations throughout childhood,” Patterson, who leads the Smart Sendoffs workshop says. One way to do it: Call body parts by their correct names. “Using the proper language and treating body parts normally—“this is your ear, this is your nose, this is your vagina”—all the way from birth until the pre-teen years, makes it easier to address these topics later.”
By normalizing their own bodies, kids will have an easier time coming to you with questions. And with all the changes they’ll experience, they’ll definitely have questions. For one, they’ll see changes on their bodies and those of their friends, and wonder: Am I normal? At which point, it’s important to remind them that these changes are part of growing up and that there’s nothing “wrong” with them.
Sex (and relationships)
During pre-teen and teen years, a lot is going on. As adolescents see their physical changes, new and unfamiliar social experiences will start to come up. Their peers may start treating them differently, once these changes become visible; they may experience first crushes and feelings of sexual arousal; they may develop an interest in establishing new kinds of relationships—ones that can become quite intense and romantic.
As uncomfortable as it may be, let your teen know you’re available to talk. Though you might feel embarrassed or awkward around these topics, parents need to initiate and have these conversations. There’s substantial research showing that kids who grow up feeling comfortable about their bodies and sexuality will keep themselves healthier and be more willing to seek help when they have questions or notice something isn’t quite right. It will also give them the resources to better navigate those challenging years after leaving home. As Patterson explains, “They’ll know it’s okay to reach out to someone for help. Knowing this can even save their lives.”
Consent and boundaries
Consent is another critical topic addressed in the classes. Children and teens need to be able to communicate clearly with other people about their boundaries on touch and teasing and other types of interaction.
Personal boundaries are three-fold: Each person defines their own, others need to respect them, and everyone has the right to change their boundaries. Instead of assuming they know (or don’t know) what consent means, parents need to ask their kids. Their answers will give you an idea of what you may need to address and help you support how they form their personal boundaries and how they protect them. Most importantly, they must understand that consent must be explicit: Only yes means yes—and that yes should come from an engaged and enthusiastic partner.
And one more thing . . .
Try seeing these conversations as a journey, one that will potentially strengthen your relationship with your adolescent. “Treating this as an ongoing conversation will be a tool to break the cycle of shame associated with puberty and sexuality,” explains Elysse Grossi-Soyster, an educator with The Chat. And this is one of the messages Grossi-Soyster and her team aim to convey in their workshops. Ultimately, the idea is to get families to engage with each other and grow as they explore topics like puberty, identity and sexuality, and growing up—and do it in a way that’s informative and fun.
Stanford Children’s Health offers comprehensive online classes to enhance the lives of parents, children, and caregivers. Click here to sign up for a class today.