Talking to your son about puberty? Here’s how

Practice saying "that's normal" while discussing physical and emotional changes

Mom points ahead while on a hike with her son. Another mom and son are out of focus in the background.

Most of us have been through puberty and wouldn’t otherwise need to think about it until we have preteens of our own.

But as long as Sanford Health physician, Glenn Ridder, M.D. specializes in family medicine in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he’ll likely continue having more of of those conversations than the rest of us combined.

That’s why Sanford Health News turned to Dr. Ridder for expertise on how to approach the topic when it comes to adolescent males.

Puberty explained

“For boys especially, there isn’t a natural kind of initiation into manhood,” Dr. Glenn Ridder explains. Unlike puberty in girls, there isn’t a defined event — like that first menstrual cycle — to mark the beginning.

Puberty for boys is best described, practically, as the physiologic change and transition into adulthood, which includes deeper vocal cords, growing more hair, becoming broader at the shoulders and narrow at the hips. On average it starts between ages 9 and 14.

“And some of that is so subtle when it happens and, of course, the growth spurt, that nobody really talks about it. It just kind of happens,” Dr. Ridder said.

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Conversations over these changes are encouraged between a parent or guardian and the boy who is roughly middle school-aged.

“Unfortunately, parents are depending on the school system or somebody else to give them that information because it’s too embarrassing to talk about,” Dr. Ridder said.

When those changes happen, he says, that’s a great time to start.

“I say, ‘Yeah, this is a common thing,’ and that’s always the way I approach it,” Dr. Ridder explains. “Common things happen when you’re going through puberty and virtually everybody experiences them whether boy to man or girl to woman.”

Whether it’s changes in the reproductive systems or rising levels of testosterone, he encourages parents to be frank.

“You just say, well, this is what happens.”

‘8 is great’

Amy Kelley, M.D., specializes in obstetrics and gynecology in adolescents at Sanford Women’s and is passionate about age-appropriate education and awareness about puberty and transitioning into adulthood. She also gives lectures about sex education and teaches sexuality.

Morals and the emotional side of sex and relationships should be part of it, she said.

“What we and national experts say is 8 is great, 9 is fine and 10 is too late,” she said of the recommended age to start talking to children about sex.

“That’s not to say your kids should know everything. But by 8 they should know where babies come from and the real names for their anatomy and what sex is — the mechanics of it and the fact that it’s between adults. Otherwise, they’ll find out from someone on the playground or an older sibling and they don’t get good information,” Dr. Kelley said.

The average age of sex abuse is 9, so having those conversations with kids helps them know what’s appropriate.

“The way you can help them prevent being abused is by telling them this is what sex is and this is only what sex is. Only adults do this. Or only married people do this, depending on your values,” she said.

“You add, ‘This is what our family believes’ and how you can protect yourself both physically from pregnancy and disease but also emotionally. The mechanics and science is important. But I also think it should include, ‘How do you treat somebody that you are involved with?’ … There’s so much abuse. It’s important to teach your kids about consent and what a healthy relationship looks like.”

Tips for parents

Dr. Kelley offers these suggestions to parents about how to have regular and open-ended conversations about sex and relationships with their children:

  1. Don’t freak out. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for breaking rules or doing things outside of a family’s expectations. If you overreact, they won’t come to you again because they’ll think you can’t handle it.
  2. Start talking to kids when they’re 8 to 10 years old. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but younger children don’t feel as embarrassed as teens.
  3. Talk in the car. You don’t have to look at each other, but kids are also a captive audience.
  4. Talk at night. If you’re putting them to bed, you can turn off the lights and don’t have to look at each other.
  5. Practice what to say. “I tell parents that if you’re uncomfortable, your kids will be uncomfortable. If you have to stand in front of the mirror and say ‘penis’ or ‘vagina’ five times without getting embarrassed, it will really help,” she said.
  6. If you’ve laid the groundwork from 8 to 10 about what sex is, you then use teachable moments. For example, if they hear about some older cousin getting pregnant, you can ask, “Did you know you can prevent pregnancy? We can talk about it.”
  7. By 12, kids should know almost everything. They should know ways to prevent pregnancy and that they get diseases from sex. You don’t have to go into tons of detail.

“It’s not just about sex,” she said. “It’s about teaching your kids about a normal relationship.”

Having the talk

An important step, Dr. Ridder says, is to keep that line of communication open and staying connected to your kids, not just virtually.

While the COVID-19 pandemic brought on more family time, it’s leading to more screen time with schooling and virtual interactions.

“Hopefully they all realized that virtual interaction is not the same as is face-to-face interaction,” Dr. Ridder said. “At a certain point, you’ve gotta get rid of that equipment and just talk.”

Related: Girls and puberty: It’s about more than their first period

This is hopefully encouraging people to get back into their relationships, like family dinners for example.

“We’re here for a half-hour, we’re going to have to say something. All of a sudden, communication starts and relationships open up. Kids realize parents really do love them and parents realize kids think we’re OK,” Dr. Ridder says.

Parents have been through the puberty phase and despite it seeming uncomfortable, he says let them hear about it from you, first.

“You are more of an expert than the kid, and there’s nobody in their class that has any more significant experience with this than each one of these boys do,” he said. “So you need you or somebody older, somebody they can trust and that’s gonna hold them accountable.”

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Posted In Back to School, Children's, Family Medicine, Parenting, Sioux Falls