Question: I’m a single mum to a nine-year-old boy. We’ve always been really close, but things started to change this summer, when he began to show signs of puberty — he’s had a growth spurt, has more hair on his legs and has become very shy about being naked, too.
Neither of us have said a word about it to each other. He seems much too young for puberty, but I’ve got to get over my fear and talk to him. What can I say to make him more relaxed and prepared for what’s coming next?
Answer: My usual approach is to call it like I see it and not sugar-coat anything, but kids are an entirely different ballgame, especially when the questions of life arise.
It’s natural for parents to want to avoid the hard truths, so how do you describe intimate issues with your kid? And how much is too much?
The first response is — you tell him what he can handle. Every child is different, so the questions they’ll have and the answers they’ll need will vary, too. The young brain is constantly seeking information, and while kids may not understand how their body works, they want to.
To help work out what your child can handle (and this advice goes for whether you have a son or daughter), start by finding out what he already knows. What words or names does he already know for intimate parts and sex? What does he understand about how the body changes through puberty? I know this sounds super awkward, but you need to know what he already knows.
I have mums who swear by having this chat in the car for a number of reasons. Firstly, your hormonal child can’t go anywhere and secondly, you can look as if you’re only remotely interested even though you’re hanging off every single word!
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At this point, I want to reassure you that these body changes for your son are entirely normal as boys approach puberty.
Minor changes happen at age eight or nine, while puberty really kicks off from about the age of 12 — 10 for girls — give or take a year or two. But to find out where he’s really at, you’ll need to have a few more intimate conversations (sorry!).
Once you understand where he’s at, you can take control of what he learns next. With the emergence of the internet, kids today have a far more graphic view about sexuality at a much earlier age. By starting these conversations now, you’ll stay in control, helping him build a respectful and appropriate understanding of his body, sex and his sexuality. (And you’ll stop the biggest loudmouth at school being his primary source of information.)
Start by talking about other kids around him. Explore what he’s noticed about other boys’ bodies, especially those from senior school. Discussing body, armpit and facial hair is probably a smoother start than inquiring about which of his mates’ ‘balls have dropped’. By starting with things like hairy pits, you can decide how much he learns next about how pubic hair grows and what happens with erections.
By talking about all the other boys, you’re breaking the ice in a general sense and then you can explain the same changes will happen for him, or even ask outright where he’s at. And remember, a healthy knowledge about his body and sexuality should include an equal understanding about how girls change, too.
And while you’re doing all of this, don’t be scared to show a bit of your own vulnerability — and use it to your advantage. Even mentioning your own thoughts and feelings when you went through puberty may help ease the awkwardness. Admitting you’re a little embarrassed and unsure, will go a long way to building trust. And if he wants his door closed a bit more often, that’s OK, too. Trust has to be a two-way street if you’re to get through the tumultuous hormone influx ahead.
You can also try having a bit of fun — boys love a willy joke, and it just may be the icebreaker you need to foster a more open relationship.
* Dr Sam Hay is a GP and expert on Embarrassing Bodies
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