Talk to Your Teen About Body Changes and Sex
It's a tough subject to tackle, but we want to be the ones to tell our daughters about the facts of life. It certainly would have helped if as young mothers with young children, "body talk" was the household norm. "Learning the proper names of your various body parts – not just toes and nose, but breasts and vagina as well – should start when they're babies," says Jan Mallak, a doula and educator who gives mom/daughter seminars for The Midwife Center for Women's Health. "This helps parents to have the right words to keep on talking to them as they get older."
If you're like many parents, and "body talk" wasn't – and still isn't – the household norm, it's not too late. Carol Weston, author of Girl Talk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You (Quill, fourth edition, 2004), says merely to forgive yourself for not being perfect, take a deep breath and don't be afraid to tell your daughter that this is difficult for you to talk about.
Since the first edition of her book was published in 1985, Weston says children are being exposed to more mature subjects at ever younger ages. Because there are so many other forces at work trying to sway our children's moral development, Weston and Mallak both agree it's more important than ever for modern parents to be able to have discussions about body changes and sexuality with their children.
Of course, all that's easy for them to say; they're professionals. How do the rest of us find the words to tell our daughters what's going to happen? For those looking for just the right words, here's a primer on everything you may have forgotten from that eighth grade health class.
The female reproductive system is best known for the vagina. The vagina leads to the uterus, which has two fallopian tubes branching off from it. These tubes lead to the ovaries, which release an egg every month after a female begins menstruating. The opening where the vagina and uterus meet is called the cervix. Other words your daughter should know include vulva, labia, urethra and clitoris. Visit this link for a detailed look.
The male reproductive system begins with the penis. Hanging below the penis is the scrotum. Within the scrotum are the testicles and part of the male duct system that helps produce sperm and semen.
Time to Change
Puberty is the process by which the body matures, and it can begin as early as age 9. In girls, it starts with breast budding and the growth of pubic hair. A growth spurt follows breast budding by about a year. Your daughter will usually get her first period about two years after puberty begins. Puberty then continues to progress with breast enlargement and body hair growth.
As your daughter's breasts begin to bud, it's time to think about bra shopping. First bras, or trainer bras, don't rely on cup size; they're more for making her feel less self-conscious about her changing breasts. Your daughter may even prefer sports-type bras that come in small, medium and large.
As her breasts begin to grow, here is how to measure for bra size: Measure around her body, right across the nipples. This is the breast measurement. Then measure around her body under her breasts and add five inches (for the fastener). This is the band measurement. The difference between the two is cup size. Each inch of difference equals one cup size. In other words, 1 inch equals an "A" cup. The band measurement, then, is the size bra she needs, for example a 32A.
The first period is generally preceded by about six months of vaginal discharge. This period usually consists of no more than five to six tablespoons of clean blood, which is released over two to seven days. An average menstrual cycle lasts about 28 days. Although 12 is the average age of menses, or first menstruation, it does happen in girls as young as 9 or 10.
Well before your child starts menstruating, it's important to make sure she understands what's happening. Age 11 is probably the latest to make her aware that this will happen to her, but you don't have to be terribly complex at this point. How much you want her to know is up to you, but one easy explanation is to say that one egg is released every month from her ovaries and it travels to the uterus. If that egg were fertilized by sperm from a man, a baby would start to grow from the egg. Every month, a lining builds up in the womb, in order to prepare for a possible pregnancy. When the body knows that no baby is growing, then this lining breaks down and seeps through the vagina and out of the body.
Probably what most young girls are concerned about is the embarrassment factor or of being caught unprepared. Explain that she'll catch the blood on special pads that are made for that purpose. Buy some pads and show her how they will attach easily and securely to her underwear and how to roll them up and dispose of them. Several manufacturers sell smaller-sized pads that are made especially for younger teens or preteens. In fact, it might be nice to let your daughter know that she can be expecting some discharge before her periods start and buy her some panty liners to use to protect her underwear. This can be kind of a warm-up for the big event.
When Weston's daughters were 11, she put together a little kit to keep in their locker at school. She also provided one when they went to summer camp. She points out that, although the nurse has these supplies, a child is usually more comfortable with her mother providing them. A gesture like this can eliminate much of the anxiety your daughter may feel about being caught off guard.
As for tampons, although this may not be something you want to start your daughter off using, it's important to remember that they are a very comfortable alternative to pads – especially for swimmers and other athletes. Using tampons does not damage the vagina – they cannot enter the uterus through the cervix – nor does using a tampon mean a girl is no longer a virgin. The two important things to remember about tampons are as follows:
1. Be sure to insert it far enough into the vagina so the tip is not stuck in the vaginal opening. This can cause irritation and leakage. It's also very uncomfortable.
2. To avoid the risk of toxic shock (which is extremely low anyway), change the tampon frequently, wash hands before and after changing a tampon and wear a pad when going to bed for the night.
Other Body Changes
As a child goes through puberty, hormonal changes tend to affect skin, hair and body odor. Early puberty is also a time when they tend to resist the idea of bathing, simply because they're still children and have better things to do. Tell them that their body is undergoing changes that make their body odor less pleasant and that it's important to you that they take care of themselves while their body is changing. Remind them to wash their hair, since that's a step they like to skip. Eventually, they'll want to shower every day.
By about age 12, a child should probably know the basics of sex. How much detail you, as a parent, want to go into is up to you. Do keep this in mind, however: Children will get the information wherever they can, sometimes when they don't even want it. Of course, lunch table and playground discussions are good for this sort of thing.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that direct questions should always be met with direct answers and not flippant remarks. This does a disservice to your child. If you can't think of what to say right off the bat, tell them you'll talk about it later, do some research, talk to your spouse, whatever, and then bring it up by saying something like, "You know, honey, earlier when you asked me what 'doing it' means, I was busy, but this is what it means." That gives you a chance to collect your thoughts and choose your words. If they ask uncomfortable questions such as, "Did you and Daddy do that?" calmly explain that the relations of each married person is private, but in general, this is what happens.
While the details of sexual intercourse are more than likely the question you're dreading, you need to learn to think outside of the box in order to keep your teen safe. Both Mallak and Weston express concern with the apparent rise in oral sex among children as young as 11. Surprising as this may be, some children don't seem to view the act as sex and don't seem to realize it's inappropriate behavior for young people. Oral sex also carries risk for disease, so you may want to think about letting your child understand that it isn't a game.
Shop 'Til You Talk
Even when you know the right words and know when you should say them, talking to your daughter about these changes is very uncomfortable for many parents. Know that you're not alone. Still, you want your children to get information from you, because that gives you the opportunity to also pass on your values and rules. Mallak suggests shopping, the great American pastime. Start small with a trip for those essential body care items like special soap, shampoo and deodorant. This opens the door to talk about body changes. Then later trips for bras and menstrual supplies can continue the dialogue.
Mallak and Weston also recommend books and classes. With my own daughter, we took a class when she was 11. Then I gave her a book, and it made us both comfortable enough that now, with her a 17-year-old college freshman, we still are able to discuss difficult subjects. Weston's book is one I bought for my daughter when she was about 14, but, while it's terrific for older adolescents, it's not something I'd give to a 10-year-old. Check your library or bookstore for something that you're comfortable with. Read it yourself first so you know as much as your child does. As she gets older, her books should give her more facts. An informed girl is an empowered girl.