Many parents and caregivers grew up in homes where puberty and reproduction were rarely discussed, so we often don’t have a memory of how to deal with the topic. We can be so concerned with ‘getting it right’ that we avoid or miss the opportunities to talk. But talking with your children and letting them see that you’re open to their questions and concerns means they understand they can come to you for advice and support.
First off, there’s one basic rule to try and stick to: don’t over answer. Just address the question they brought up. Nervousness can make us run our mouths, but try and stick to the topic if you can. That being said, if you do over answer, or go into detail about something you don’t think you should have – don’t worry. Kids generally only take on board what they’re ready for, and filter out and forget the rest.
Try to be clear and honest, and use simple language. Don’t switch into a formal tone of voice – keep things casual. This sends the message that their curiosity is normal, and will put your child at ease. Aim for a neutral way of speaking about things (so not shaming, but not necessarily ‘Yay! Periods!’ either. You will have your own style). We don’t want to send the message that young people should be ashamed of their bodies, functions or feelings, but we also don’t want to make topics or situations seem bigger than they are.
It’s OK to feel awkward or bumble over an answer, just so long as you’re trying. Your child will see you trying and appreciate it. You can tell them that you’re feeling this way too; that it can be a little uncomfortable talking about these things. They understand what it is to feel embarrassed. Trust us, by showing that you care enough to respond, they’ll feel cared for and taken seriously. And keep their confidence. If they see you laughing over the question they asked you later with your partner or friend, you’ll quickly lose their trust.
Sometimes your child might ask something that seems really ‘out there’. First, ask your child why they’re asking about it (they may have heard a word they don’t know, or seen something to do with it). Then give your answer, depending on how much you think they should know, and what you feel is appropriate to talk about. Children will hear about all sorts of things including sexual things, and it can be confusing and shocking to them. It’s important that they’re reassured and have the opportunity for a trusted adult (you) to explain to them what is safe and not safe, healthy or not healthy, okay not okay, respectful or not respectful.
If you can answer a question at the time, answer it there and then. That being said, it’s OK if you don’t know how to answer at the time, and you can tell your child just that. But don’t use it as an excuse to avoid answering the question entirely. Look it up, ask someone else, find an answer, and open up the conversation again with your child. If they’re not getting the answer from you, it’s likely they’ll go instead to not-so-reliable sources.
Ignoring your child’s questions is worse than giving them an answer. You might worry about answering a question that seems inappropriate. But if your child has asked it, then it needs to be dealt with in some way. It can be hard to resist sometimes, but censuring a child for asking a question – making them feel bad or ashamed, or making fun of the question – can be damaging to them psychologically and will affect the trust relationship. And you want them going to a trusted adult for reliable information, because otherwise, they will go to unreliable sources (such as friends, older siblings, or the internet).
If you show your child that you’re approachable and up for talking about bodies, how babies are made, sex, puberty, feelings, relationships and so on, then you’re letting them build their confidence in you as a person they can rely on later as well, when it comes to risk management in terms of their lives, when things like sex, relationships, drugs, alcohol and so on begin to be relevant for some teenagers.
General tips to take away:
- be ‘ask-able’
- think about the ‘question behind the question’, if you’re not sure what they want to know, ask more questions and clarify what they’re asking
- answer the question as honestly and simply as possible and try to avoid ‘over answering’
- find ‘teachable’ moments i.e. watching TV together, looking at advertisements etc
- it’s okay to feel uncomfortable
- if you don’t know how to respond, it’s okay to say so. You don’t need to know all the answers
- some information is private and personal – you can set boundaries
- age-appropriate books are great
- facts are not enough; share feelings, values and beliefs
- if possible, try to talk about bodies and changes in a non-negative way. We want to reassure them these things are normal
- remember that you are letting your child know that you care about their happiness and well-being
- keep your sense of humour