The puberty talk you might have missed (but need to have)

There are a lot of changes that come with puberty: growth spurts, body hair, periods, wet dreams, mood swings and many more. Most of us will have a pretty good checklist of developments that kids need to know about. But there’s more that young people need to know – and can worry about – beyond the simple physical and psychological changes. Parents might not bring up or even know about the more complex or intangible aspects of adolescence. Like what, you ask? Read on and find out. 

They don’t need to worry

It’s easy to forget how scary the changes of puberty can feel to a kid on the brink of adolescence. After all, we’ve all lived with breasts or facial hair (or both) and the whole adult-body mixed bag for decades. But it’s both normal and very common for kids staring down these developments to feel anxious about them. As parents, we need to ease their fears and reassure them that there’s nothing to worry about, and that these changes don’t happen overnight.

Bodies changing can be exciting

Following on from the last point, you might like to encourage your child to approach their developing body with curiosity and wonder. Isn’t it exciting how your brain is developing? How cool is it that your body is growing so that one day you can make a baby if you want? Isn’t it amazing what the human body can do! Growing up comes with many wonderful things and experiences they’ll get to have, and it’s something to look forward to rather than fear.

Bodies grow and change at different speeds and in different ways

Puberty can come with a lot of comparing. Bodies growing too slowly or too much. It’s important that kids know that their bodies will grow and develop in their own time, not all at once and not at the same time or in the same ways as other people. There’s nothing to be gained from comparing their body to anyone else’s, and there will be aspects of their body that others wished they had. On this note, it’s also important to remind young people not to comment or tease someone for being either ahead or behind in development.

There’s nothing wrong with new curiosities and desires

Along with mood swings and heightened emotions come other psychological changes, including new curiosities and desires. It’s important kids know that these feelings are completely normal and natural – and are nothing to be ashamed of. Some kids also won’t develop sexual feelings for a while, and some never, and that’s okay as well. Either way, it’s just good to check in with young people and let them know they might experience these new feelings, and that it’s normal. Remember, books are always good help if you’re feeling particularly uncomfortable about talking.   

Gender identity can grow and change with puberty

For all young people, puberty is a time when gender identities can really cement themselves. It’s when gender dynamics suddenly become important and people might start thinking about who they’re attracted to. But they also might be thinking about how they identify. While for most kids, puberty will just confirm that their gender identity is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth, but others might realise that their gender is different to the label they were given when they were born.

Friendships might grow and change

Adolescence is a time of great change – and that can include social circles. Through growing up, changing from primary school to secondary school and developing new interests, new friendships often develop as others fade. And that’s fine and normal. The length of a friendship is only one measure of success; it’s okay for kids to decide they want to spend time with different people. So long as a friendship makes you feel good most of the time, it’s okay whether it lasts a lifetime or just a summer.  

Their want for independence is normal

The push for independence that often comes with puberty isn’t something that’s just tough for the parents, it can be painful and confusing for young people too. Outwardly, they might be telling you to get out of their face, but inwardly, there’s still the same need for parental approval and affection. That pull between their opposing desires can be difficult to understand or manage, and it can help if teens know what they’re experiencing is normal and okay.

You’ll stick by them ­­– even when they don’t want you to

Following on from the last point, there’s an extra message to tack on when talking to them about their desire for freedom. Let your child know you’ll give them space when they want, but also be there for them when they need. Even if it seems like they’re not listening – they are. They’re still taking on your messages and they want to hear from parents. This reassurance will help go forth into the world without guilt, and with the knowledge that they can always turn to you and once again become a ‘child’ who will be cared for when they need.

And don’t forget to listen

Finally, the last and one of the most helpful things parents can do during this period is to take a step back and just listen. As kids get older, our role becomes less about talking and more about listening. Having a sympathetic ear may be all the support they need at times. And at the end of the day, it’s up to them to work out who they are and what they believe in as they become adults.

How to keep your child safe on the internet (including games and social media)

Talk about it (and often)

The first and best thing you can do with your child is to talk to them! Ask them about why they want to be online and how they connect with others. Tell them about your fears and what you need to feel more comfortable about their safety. Talk about what they can do if something ever happens or if they see anything inappropriate online and practise the steps together. Keeping channels of communication open will make them more likely to come to you if they ever see something upsetting.

Screens where you can see them

Rather than giving a child an iPad to go take off with them wherever, consider having a shared central computer (like in the living room). This way you can keep an eye on what they’re up to – and they’ll be less likely to search for anything they know they shouldn’t. Make this the only place where they can go on the internet.

Set clear rules (together)

What are some rules that will make you feel more comfortable with them using the internet? Consider what your boundaries are and ask them about what they think some fair rules might be as well. Will there be limits to screen time? Will there be some apps or games that are a hard no? Do they need to show you who their ‘friends’ are on social media apps? Deciding on some clear boundaries together will help keep them safe (and in check).

Make them aware of their ‘digital footprint’

Just because in some apps a photo or post can disappear after 30 seconds or 24 hours, doesn’t mean that it’s not been captured. Kids need to get their head around the idea that once something is up on the internet, it’s permanent. There can always been screen-captures or anything else. Because of this, they always need to think carefully before putting anything online. This isn’t just for images or photos of themselves, but also the language they use; others will see inappropriate or abusive language. Better to err on the side of caution than to regret something later.

No personal information

Because of the above point, it’s so important that kids know that no personal information should ever be shared online – especially in public places like social media posts. This is a good hard and fast rule to have, and can include things like phone number, address, and whatever else you decide.

Know your parental controls

Some games, apps, wifis and devices will have certain controls that will block access to certain things that aren’t appropriate for children. We recommend spending some time and doing a bit of research to see what is within your control (you can start by reading this page from the eSafety Commissioner). Of course, these won’t work as a magic blocker against all harmful things on the internet – but it can help.

No sexual conversations – and tell an adult

This is another one we recommend being a hard rule that should be talked about a lot. It’s also why body safety and knowing about private body parts is so important! Children need to know that if they see – or if anyone talks to them about – anything to do with private parts, they should look away and come tell an adult straight away. If any stranger is asking to see any photos at all, that can be a warning sign. Some kids might worry they’ll be laughed at or get into trouble if this happens to them, so it’s so vital we tell our children that it’s always okay to come to a trusted adult and that they’ll never be punished.

Know who they’re talking to (and no strangers)  

Get them to show you who they’re talking to and who they’re adding on their games and social media apps. It’s not an invasion of privacy to at least ask to be shown who they’re talking to, and before adolescence we would argue it’s okay to ask to see at least some of their conversations – especially if it’s someone that you don’t know of in their real life.  On this point, all of their socials’ pages and games (where possible) should be set to ‘private’.

Add them on your own socials

If you have some of the same social media or even games apps as they do – add them! Kids will be more likely to be aware of what they’re posting if they know mum or dad can see it too.

Keep on top of apps 

SnapChat? TikTok? Roblox? Minecraft? It can feel like technology is constantly evolving and there are always new apps out there. But it helps if you can keep on top of at least the most popular sites and apps that kids are visiting. This can be as simple as looking up something your child mentions, or every now and again just doing a search or two online to see what’s popular right now. Have a read about these apps. Do they have any child safety features? What are the worrying parts of them? Knowing what your kids are using will help you be prepared.

Watch out for cyberbullying

Of course, with interactions with other people online comes the worries and risks of cyberbullying. We can’t hide our children away from the world, nor the internet, so the best we can do is be prepared and set up channels of communication so that they feel they can come to you if something is wrong. Have a chat with your child about what cyberbullying looks like and why it isn’t okay, and keep an eye out for the signs that they may be being bullied (like withdrawing from social activities, even online).

Resources for parents

https://www.commonsensemedia.org

https://mediasmarts.ca/parents

https://www.esafety.gov.au/parents

https://www.esafety.gov.au/kids

How to support your LGBTQ+ child or teen

Every child deserves love and care. Sometimes, it can feel like a huge task as a parent to know how to support and nurture your young person in all the ways they need. Young LGBTQ+ people particularly face unique challenges that some parents might not always know how to guide through – especially with today’s terminology changing so fast (you can read our article which breaks down the LGBTQ+ acronym here). But there are a number of simple and easy steps we can take to become both allies and centres of support for our children and teens who are gay, transgender, or anything else.

Show them love and support

It seems like a no-brainer, but it really is the most important point. Studies from The Trevor Project found LGBTQ+ youth who had at least one accepting adult in their life were 40 per cent less likely to report a suicide attempt. Tell your child you love them, no matter who they are – and not in spite of who they are. Tell them you’ll support their journey and always be there to look out for them. If they’ve come out to you as transgender or gender non-conforming, make an effort to always use their chosen name or pronouns and correct yourself if you mess up (this includes even when they’re not around).

Watch for negative thoughts

You might have moments when you think to yourself, ‘It’s just a phase,’ or, ‘Others will judge me,’ or, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ And that’s okay. We’re all only human. But it’s important in those moments to course-correct your thoughts, and not let them slip out in front of your child. Remind yourself that these thoughts aren’t right or fair for your child: it’s not just a phase, no one will judge you, and you did nothing wrong – just as there’s nothing wrong with your child!

Ask questions and listen, listen, listen

Give your child the time and space to open up to you. Check in often. Ask them questions – about their identity or orientation and what it means to them; the terms can be defined differently for different individuals, and some of the nuances might seem small but they can be a big deal for people who identify a certain way. Ask about their views on the world and their thoughts on the LGBTQ+ experience today. Ask them about their favourite queer idols or stars and what they like about them. Talk to them about current issues for the community. And listen and take on board what they have to say.

Be proactive

Little things can go a long way in showing that you’re a parent who actively participates in your child’s life. Do a bit of research to find out what all the latest LGBTQ+ terms are and what they mean (we have a helpful post on this here). Read the news on sexuality and gender diversity issues. Look into queer events that you can go to together to show that you care. They’ll pick up on your demonstration of support.

Show them representation

Thankfully, LGBTQ+ representation has come a long way – especially in the last few years. There are more movies, television shows, books and podcasts than ever that focus on queer characters and issues. Queer musicians are more common than ever. Watching, reading or listening to these with your child will help to show them that they’re normal and there are many others like them. It also helps to show the breadth of LGBTQ+ experience – that queer people aren’t a monolith and there’s a lot of diversity even just within labels like ‘gay’ or ‘trans’.

Watch out for bullying

According to the Human Right’s Commission, more than 70 per cent of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people have been attacked, bullied or harassed. School yards can be particularly vicious places for young queer people. Watch out for signs that your child is being bullied, including withdrawing from social activities and other activities they normally enjoy, not wanting to go to school, and behaving more withdrawn, mopey or irritable than normal. They also might make more negative comments about themselves.

If you suspect your child is being bullied, check in with them. It’s okay to ask what’s going on in their lives and in the schoolground. From there, talk to your child’s school. They should have anti-bullying policies in place and steps they can take – and hopefully, they will have specific support services for LGBTQ+ kids.

Keep an eye out for signs of poor mental health

A disproportionate number of LGBTQ+ people experience issues with mental health compared to heterosexual and/or cisgender general populations – including much higher suicide rates. Your child or teen might also be showing the signs listed in the above point if they’re suffering from common mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression. If your child has become withdrawn, speak to your GP and do some research to find a queer-friendly psychologist or counsellor for them. If seeing a counsellor doesn’t work, you might need to talk to your GP about other options such as medication.

Connect them with resources and events

Both you and your child need to remember that you’re not alone in this! Far from it, for many people, one of the best things about being a queer person is the community it opens you up to. Minus18 is a fantastic resource that young people can get involved with. Not only do they provide education and advocacy, but they also run events for queer children and teens to help them make friends with one another. You can also show your support by going to events together, such as Midsumma Festival and their Pride March, the Melbourne Queer Film Festival and all-ages drag shows.

Support their self-expression

All adolescents care about how the look – fitting in with their ‘tribe’. This is no exception – even particularly true – for queer tweens and teens. Allowing them to dress in a way that expresses their gender or sexuality can affirm and foster pride in their identity, while helping them feel supported by you. Of course, sadly, there may need to be conversations about staying safe (as visibly queer people can be particular targets for attacks), but you can negotiate situations and places where they can go ‘all out’, so to speak.

Reach out to other families and support services

Once more – you’re not alone! Not sure what to do or say? Reach out to other parents. Ask your child’s school what they’re doing to support their queer students and their parents. See if you can set up a parents’ group. Meet other parents at events such as Pride marches. Look out for Facebook groups. One particularly great resource is The Rainbow Network, which is a website specifically for families of LGBTQ+ children. They also run events, which can be an excellent for meeting similar parents and carers.

If they’re not out to you

First and foremost, try to hold back on assumptions. Until they tell you, you can’t know. Some people just behave and present themselves in ways that don’t uphold the stereotypes of their gender. You might be tempted to come out and ask, but it’s better to wait until they feel the time is right to tell you.

In the meantime, there are ways you can help foster an environment where they’ll feel safe to come out to you if the time does come. Speak positively about representations of LGBTQ+ people on screen. Make it no big deal to watch a film with a trans character or a gay love story. Challenge people around you if they speak negatively about queer people or issues in your presence – especially if your child is around. And finally, let your child know that you’ll love and support them no matter (and not in spite of) who they are or who they love.

Why ‘NO’ is the most important word in your child’s vocabulary (and how to encourage them to use it)

Why it’s important

In a world of ‘yes’, ‘more’ and ‘positive vibes only’, the word ‘no’ gets a bad rap. Say ‘no’ too often and you’re a ‘negative Nancy’ or a ‘party pooper’. You’re not making the most of life’s opportunities or you’re too pessimistic. But ‘no’ is the one of, if not the most important tool in our vocabulary arsenal. Why? ‘No’ is what sets boundaries and protects us from harmful experiences. It’s what allows us to do with ourselves what we want to do – and not what others want or expect from us.

By extension, encouraging our children from an early age to say ‘no’ teaches them body autonomy and that they don’t have to agree to anything they don’t feel comfortable with. Communicating that it’s okay to say ‘no’ also teaches kids to listen and trust their gut instinct with people and situations. It also lays the groundwork for later in life when they gain independence and will be in higher-stakes consent situations as a teen and an adult, especially sexual experiences.

Of course, there will be periods in our children’s lives when it feels like ‘no’ is the only word they know. It might be frustrating, but by process of arguing with parents, children learn valuable skills around conflict management, negotiation, empathy and patience – as well as gain confidence.

How you can encourage saying ‘no’

Encouraging your children to practise saying ‘no’ can be an easy, everyday activity. When possible, allow them to think about and decide for themselves whether they want to do an activity. Role play situations with them where they might want to (or should) tell someone ‘no’ – from whether they want to wear their green T-shirt today to saying ‘no’ to unwanted touching. 

A great way to encourage body autonomy is to allow children to decide whether they want to hug or kiss their relatives at family events. It might tick off grandma or uncle Geoff if they ask for a hug at Christmas and you don’t tell your child they need to comply, but their mild annoyance is of far less importance than the values you’re teaching your child by allowing them to decide for themselves.

When you need to tell them ‘no’  

There will be times when negotiation is not an option and you simply have to put your foot down. That’s okay! It won’t contradict their right to say ‘no’ if you explain to them why. Let them know that, while they’re still children, there will be times when mum and/or dad (or other mum, or grandma, or whoever) will have to say ‘no’ to something they want to do for their own health and safety. Then don’t just tell them, ‘Because I said so!’ (Even though it’s tempting at times). Tell them why you’re saying ‘no’.

When they want an ice cream, tell them you’re saying ‘no’ because we need to respect our bodies by putting food into them that nourishes them. Let them know they can’t have the new toy because money needs to be mostly spent on needs – and we don’t always need new ‘stuff’. If they want to know why they can’t climb along the edge of a ledge, talk to them about risk and not putting our bodies in the way of harm. Telling them the reasons why they can’t do or have some things – rather than just ‘no’ – helps them to understand that denials have important reasons behind them that need to be respected.

How to help ease your child out of lockdown

While we’ve been rejoicing the end of Victoria’s lockdown, euphoria hasn’t been the only emotion brought on by the announcement. Many people have reported feeling anxious at the ease of restrictions. It makes sense. Those in higher risk groups might still be worried about catching the disease, vaccine or no vaccine, and additionally to that, we’ve spent the last 18 months absorbing the idea that social spaces are places of danger. We might be able to tell ourselves that this is no longer true, but it takes time for the body to process information. Some might find that socialising after so long can create feelings of ‘fight or flight’ and a heightened nervous system.

Children and teenagers especially could have complicated feelings coming out of lockdown. Some might be worried about catching Covid. Others might be nervous about fitting back into social dynamics or how they’ll cope with the workload of regular school. Plus, lockdown has taken a far greater time proportionally from their lives than ours. Many milestones such as birthdays and formals have been missed. And developmentally, they won’t have all the emotional and cognitive regulation skills of adults to transition smoothly into this new world. The good news (for us and them) is that brains are highly adaptable, and most will quickly adjust, but how can parents and carers help with this process?

Get them to think about and vocalise how they’re feeling

As always, the best thing to do is ask questions and talk, talk, talk. Ask them how they’re feeling about leaving lockdown, what they’re excited about and what they’re worried about. Get them to name their emotions and ask them to explain how they feel them in their body (sweaty palms? Heart skipping a beat? Etc). Ask them if there’s anything you can do to help, or strategies you can work on together to get them through this transition period. And remind them they can always come and talk to you, every step of the way.

Explain why they’re feeling this way

Some young people might be feeling confused as to why they have apprehensions about leaving lockdown. Talk to them about how our body isn’t always aligned with our brain, and our body can physically manifest worries that we might not consciously be aware of. Explain how we’ve grown used to perceiving social settings as ‘risky’ and how that’s a hard message to just switch off. Talk about how it’s normal to be nervous about going back to school and interacting with friends again – even best friends – and how it might feel as if they’re experiencing their first day all over again. 

Switch the anxiety/excitement axis

Increased heart rate. Butterflies in the stomach. Struggling to sit still. All of these can be symptoms of anxiety, but they can be symptoms of excitement too. And often, our bodies can’t really tell the difference. Try talking to your young person about the importance of a positive mindset. When they express these feelings, try and direct them to something they feel positive and excited about, rather than something that makes them feel nervous to think of.  

Talk about taking things slow and setting boundaries

It’s tempting to make plans for every second of the weekend now that we can again, but that doesn’t mean we’ll be able to handle the go-go-go when the time comes. If they seem to be getting overwhelmed, talk to your teen/child about easing back slowly into social gatherings. If they experience social anxiety, it could help for them to only make plans with good friends they feel very comfortable with to start off.

Part of taking things slowly will sometimes be having to tell friends ‘no’. Sometimes it will be having to tell themselves ‘no’. Remind them that it’s unlikely that the first few weekends out of lockdown will be the best of their lives, so they shouldn’t feel bad about setting limits. Help them decide what some reasonable boundaries might be and practise communicating them with your young person. Remind them that they have a whole summer ahead to have fun; there’s no need for FOMO now.

Reassure them

An obvious but important point. Let your young person know that what they’re experiencing is totally normal, and many others are feeling the same way. Reassure them that humans are adaptable and it won’t be long until they feel back to normal. Chat about how they’ll be able to talk about these times with their friends who have also been through the same thing.

Don’t forget to look after yourself

Lastly, remember your child isn’t the only one going through a strange, exciting, scary transition period! Go easy on yourself and lead by example. By looking after yourself and your needs, and working through your own emotions around lockdown, you’ll also be in a better place to support your child.