How to talk about puberty and the birds and the bees with tween kids

In our latest Ask Her column, clinical psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson – who specialises in therapy, treatment, and counselling for individuals, couples and families – answers the age-old parenting question…

So, how should parents talk about puberty and the birds and the bees with their tween kids?

The best approach is to lay the groundwork in the years leading up to tween-hood. This starts at whatever age your children start asking questions about sex and reproduction, such as, “How are babies made?” “Where do babies come from” and “but how does the sperm get INTO the Mummy’s body in the first place?”

The sooner you start answering these questions when they arise, with factual but age-appropriate information, the more you become the go-to person as your child’s need for knowledge matures.

Creating an environment in which your child brings their questions to you means that you never need to initiate a big “birds and bees” talk at a particular age. Rather, your child’s awareness gradually matures, little by little, through ongoing interactions with you.

At younger ages, such as preschool and early primary, children are usually satisfied with fairly general, non-specific answers, such as “Babies grow from an egg inside a Mummy’s body”. Perhaps with the help of a Daddy’s seed or sperm and a special cuddle.

As they get older children’s need for specifics increases. For tweens it is appropriate to talk about sexual intercourse, making love or having sex as a way of expressing feelings of attraction and love, and a way of conceiving children, with explanations of penises in vaginas, among other forms of affection and closeness.

Discussions about staying safe, saying no, waiting to be older to have sex, sexual orientation, sexual feelings, bodily changes and anything else your child may wonder about can springboard from your child’s questions, or your intuitions about what they might want and need to know.

To help you guage what is appropriate at different ages, and to open and feed discussions with your child, you can’t go past a good book.

For parents I would recommend “Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go-To” Person About Sex” by Deborah Roffman.

For Tweens “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health” by Robie Harris is an old staple that has recently been updated. For younger children, seven and up, “It’s So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families” also by Robie Harris, is another gem.

If your child is a tween already, and you have studiously avoided the subject of sex and sexuality until now, try thinking about things a little differently.

Don’t brace yourself for ‘the talk’. Instead, consider your child’s sex education a part of their ever unfolding understanding of life. See sex and sexuality as part of their broader understanding of relationships, culture, gender, values, health, safety, themselves and the world.

Start laying the groundwork by having conversations about all of these things, not just sex. Make time to connect with your child, perhaps by doing something fun or relaxing together, and ask open questions about their experience of life. Talk about the things they want to talk about. Be interested and supportive. Make yourself easy to talk to. Remember what it was like to be their age.

Weave discussion of sex and sexuality into these conversations. Not just once, but in an ongoing way. You are their guide, sounding board and mentor. If not you, then pop culture, peers and the internet will take your place.

If you are embarrassed or feel out of your depth, get support. Talk to friends, your partner, read books and gather ideas. You are going to need them as your child sexually matures. And your child is going to need you.

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