Ep 137: A Different Way to Talk About Puberty

Episode Summary

Michelle Mitchell, author of A Girl’s Guide to Puberty and A Guy’s Guide to Puberty, shares her top tips preparing young people for puberty. Rather than cringing at the awkwardness, Michelle suggests we can embrace body changes as the beautiful part of life they are!

Topics covered: Puberty

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Puberty is a pretty intense experience for both teens and parents! Kids are going through a million different changes throughout their minds and bodies, while parents watch from the sidelines and try not to get caught in the crossfire! Although the mood swings can be brutal, one of the hardest parts of parenting a kid through puberty is wondering if you gave them all the right talks to prepare them for this crazy ride.

Although having the puberty talk is hard, it’s not something that can be pushed aside. If no one walks a teens through the changes their body is experiencing, they can feel isolated. They may think they’re alone in the process, without someone to turn to for advice or reassurance. But speaking with kids early and often about puberty can help them approach their adolescence with confidence instead of confusion.

To understand how we can guide kids through their coming-of-age, we’re talking to Michelle Mitchell, author of both A Guys Guide to Puberty and A Girls Guide to Puberty. We’ve had Michelle on the show twice before, but her advice is so helpful that we invited her back for a third! In this interview, she’s delving into the ways parents can help kids navigate all the twists and turns that puberty brings.

In the episode, Michelle and I discuss how you can have those tricky talks about the process of puberty. That includes everything from periods to pimples. We also get into how we can teach boys about the female body and vice versa.

Initiating the Conversation

Even if we know how important a puberty talk can be, we might not know where to start. We might even just be too embarrassed to start one up! But don’t fret! Michelle is here to give us some pointers.

Michelle suggests starting these talks a little earlier than you might expect–around age 8-12.  In her eyes, the earlier you start helping kids understand their bodies, the better equipped they’ll be when they suddenly find themselves having crushes on boys and outgrowing all their shoes. Plus, before they develop that distinctly teenage embarrassment, they’re much more inclined to have these chats without squirming,

So how do you strike up such a delicate conversation with an eight year old? Michelle says you should take your child aside and tell them that you want to have a special talk, just the two of you. She also recommends setting a specific amount of time for the talk beforehand. This helps kids feel like they aren’t entering into an endless conversation about the importance of condoms and deodorant!. 

Michelle details how every good puberty talk should allow kids to choose what they want to discuss and what topics are off limits. If a kid says “I don’t want to talk about this now, maybe later,” this is simply them expressing ownership of their own body, says Michelle. She believes it’s empowering for kids to be able to set these kinds of parameters. Allowing  them some jurisdiction over the conversation can be a powerful experience for them

In the episode, Michelle dives deep into the changes going on in your teens’ mind as they cross into puberty. She explains that the brain is what starts to change first–which is why it makes no sense to wait for physical signs of puberty to start having a talk about it. Those physical signs, however, can be an important thing to warn teens about. Michelle and I get into how you can do so in our interview.

Breaking Down Body Changes

Pimples, periods, body odor, hair in places they never expected….puberty is a roller coaster ride of physical changes. If we want kids to hang on for dear life during this wild journey, we’ve got to prepare them ahead of time. Otherwise, they’ll likely feel as though they can’t reach out or like they’re the only one going through it, says Michelle. Some kids also develop a little early or a little late, and these teens might need some extra reassurance as they’re likely receiving different treatment from their peers.

Michelle emphasizes the importance of assuring kids that they are totally unique in how their body goes through these changes, and that their uniqueness is powerful. They should never feel ashamed about where they are compared to their peers, and it’s valuable to remind them of that, says Michelle. In the episode, Michelle explains how you can make the physical aspects of the puberty process feel less embarrassing and more exciting.

We also talk all about periods, and how you can prepare a young woman to get her first one. Michelle says most girls desperately want to know when it will arrive. She suggests reminding them that they can never quite know, but empowering them with the ability to be ready for it at any time. She recommends helping your daughter pick out a “period pack with all the important supplies, giving her the choice of what to put inside (with some guidance, of course).

But what about boys? Do they need to know about periods too? Of course, says Michelle. Not only do we need to teach kids to respect their own bodies, but the bodies of other kids as well.

Teaching Kids to Respect their Peers

When kids are tying to deal with all these changes, they often cope by gossiping about other kids’ bodies or speculating about the opposite sex. But this can be disrespectful and hurtful! Michelle believes it’s important to teach kids to see the person inside the physical body and understand what they might be going through,

Michelle explains how valuable it can be to give kids run down on what the opposit sex is experiencing during puberty. For boys, knowing about periods can help them be much more empathic to girls who are dealing with the confusions of starting the process. Michelle talks about how we can approach this topic with young men in the episode. For girls, learning about male functions like erections can keep them from being confused or embarrassing a classmate by pointing one out out loud in class.

What Michelle really emphasizes here is helping kids develop empathy. The ability to treat others kindly and respect their personal journeys is an important lesson for life. All teens are struggling with different battles during this turbulent period of life, so teaching our kids to be polite and courteous to others going through puberty can be incredibly impactful, says Michelle.

In the Episode…

Along with being extremely knowledgeable, Michelle is also hilarious and lovely to talk with! This episode is full of laughs and fun stories. In addition to the topics above we also discuss:

  • What parents can convey to kids that school can’t
  • How we need to talk more with kids about “bumps and lumps”
  • Effects of changing testosterone levels
  • Shaving as empowering
  • How to get your kid to take care of their own hygiene

Puberty is daunting, but with Michelle’s help, we can get kids (and parents) to the other side. If you enjoyed listening today, you can check out more of Michelle’s work by going to her website. Michellemitchell.org. Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week.

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Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Bolster your tween/teen’s spirit when it comes to a changing body:

“It becomes something you get comfortable with because it’s your body. And it might take a little bit of getting used to but you’re growing into this amazing person.”

-Michelle Mitchell

2. Let your teen know some blemishes are normal:

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3. What you can tell your daughter about her first period: (1 of 2)

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4. What you can tell your daughter about her first period: (2 of 2)

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5. Introduce ‘the talk’ in matter-of-fact terms:

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6. Clarify a talk is between just the two of you:

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7. Set your teen at ease with boundaries around a talk:

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8. When things get highly emotional, offer help:

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9. Lay down rules around how to talk about others’ bodies: (1 of 2)

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10. Lay down rules around how to talk about others’ bodies: (2 of 2)

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So you’ve got these new books, they’re A Girl’s Guide To Puberty and A Guy’s Guide To Puberty, and they’re beautiful. They’re illustrated, they’re fun, they’re colorful. And there’s these animated cartoon characters that walk you through as a reader, so these are obviously written for children to read and educate themselves about what’s happening to their bodies. What inspired you to write these books and what do you think parents can learn from them?

Michelle: Well as a teacher, I see quite a need to help parents break that chat down for their kids in a way that’s really user-friendly for them and that they can live with it maturely, and it doesn’t overexpose them, but it’s just that gentle introduction.

Andy: And so don’t they learn about all this in school?

Michelle: Yeah, they do. But I do think that parents want that opportunity to teach their kids themselves and to stamp their values all over it. I think as educators, it’s really important that all kids have access to medically accurate information. But there are some questions that only parents can answer. And when a little one puts up their hand in one of my classes and asks me, “When is it okay for me to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend?” I say, “That is a question that only your parents can answer.” And family values are so important. This ability to mix the technical with the values that underpin it is something that I think that parents need to really continue to come back to. With every piece of information we give kids, we also want to mix it with the safety and the boundaries of family values.

Andy: What do you think is the best way to start this kind of a conversation?

Michelle: Okay. Hopefully, we’re starting earlier than that eight to 12 mark and we’re doing two or three minute chats here or there, and we’re asking our kids curious questions in a few sentences, just straight to the point, because when they’re under eight, they’re absorbing information in such a factual way, they’re likely to go, “Oh, okay. That’s going to come out of that part of my body. Oh, okay.” And they’re likely just to leave it there and it’s just so gorgeous. And then they’re like, “So what’s for lunch?” They’re so gorgeous the way they interact with information when they’re younger. But the moment they start growing up and they start getting this different filter and they become more curious, that life becomes a little more gray, we’re going to need to have those deeper conversations with them or they’re going to have more questions about things.

Michelle: I think there’s normally in every home a kickstart moment where you have a bit more of a deeper conversation, and I call it the information update. It’s not that we haven’t had the conversations with our kids and it’s not even that they don’t know about their body parts, but there does come a time in their life where they’re absorbing it on a different level.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Michelle: And we’re having a deep chat. So when I speak to 10, 11-year-olds, I say, “This is your information update. We’re going to build on what you already know, but let’s guide you into this next season of your life and give you some preparation for it.” And so I think with that, one of the key things I think we can do is to say, “Look, I want to have a grown-up conversation with you. It’s going to be just you and me. Not your little brother. Don’t want the cat around. Just a you and me conversation.” And three things I want parents to do is realize that quality or high quality conversations have joy, they have safety and they have choice. And we want to make sure we incorporate those three things in this first chat, because we all have those horror story moments about oftentimes the chat that we had, “Our parents threw the book on our bed and ran for their lives.” Or they said, “If you have any questions, come and see me.”

Michelle: We want to make sure this chat feels really safe for our kids. And another thing we want to do is make sure they know when it’s going to start and finish. So we might say to them… I think we’re going to talk forever, Andy.

Andy: How long is this going to go for?

Michelle: I know. And 10 minutes in, they’re going, “La, la, la, la, la.” Well we could say to our kids, “It’s going to take about 30 minutes, okay?”

Michelle: “And if there’s any parts in there that you feel a bit awkward with or uncomfortable, you know what? We can skip those and come back to them later.” I love empowering kids with that choice.

Michelle: And making sure that we’re really respectful of how they feel about the conversations that we’re having with them and they feel empowered to say, “Hey, that’s enough for today.” And we can always pick this stuff up the next day. We can layer it over time. So making sure we bring a smile to it, making sure we have enough humor in the conversation that it doesn’t get really, really intense, making sure they have choice. “Do you want to go for a walk? Or do you want to sit out the back deck? Or in your room?” And making sure they feel safe and they have those opt-out moments if they need them.

Andy: I read through both of these books and there’s some interesting issues in here that I think probably a lot of people don’t discuss with their children very often. So one of these was bumps and lumps.

Michelle: Do you like the little cartoon? Isn’t that so cute?

Andy: That’s pretty cute. So you write that, “During puberty, about one in three boys have small, white, fleshy, painless bumps that develop in rows around the head of their penis. No one is sure what causes them, but they’re okay and normal.” Never heard about that, but that seems like something you might want to know about. And your kid might get freaked out if they start noticing these, but also feel like they can’t really talk about it because it’s awkward.

Michelle: So many precious, especially little boys, will come to me after my puberty presentation and they’ll say to me things like, “Miss, my wee is stinging, or I’ve got a white little lump.” And they actually have genuine health questions. And I think firstly, parents need to educate themselves and make sure that they really feel to answer these questions, and they’ve got a bit of a diverse understanding of what kids’ bodies can do during puberty because all our kids’ bodies are different. So a book like this, or there’s heaps of them on the market, can really give parents a really good starting place to answer questions. But if our kids do come to us with questions that are a little bit more challenging, or we don’t know the answer to, we want to make sure we set ourselves up as that expert in their lives that will be able to get them the medically accurate answer.

Michelle: And I always talk to kids about the importance of directing medical questions to people like doctors if their parents are stuck, because doctors are trained to know all about the body, even our reproductive body parts. And so that’s an important understanding for them to realize that the medical professionals in their world are really there to help guide their health journey as well.

Andy: What about shaving? How do we bring this topic up and what do we need to say about it? And also, how is it different for boys and girls?

Michelle: That’s really cool. Okay, let me zoom right in on girls first because I had a mum the other day came up to me after How To Talk To Kids About Sex presentation in our primary school. And she came up to me and I could see that the almost tears in her eyes, they were dewy. And she said to me, “Michelle, I just feel really pushed out of my girl’s life. And I just feel so hurt that she didn’t feel like she could come to me.” And I was expecting the world’s caved in and this darling mother leaned into me and she said, “She shaved her legs without telling me or even talking to me about it.” And her mom really felt like that was a part of her girl’s journey. She really [crosstalk 00:08:25]. And do you know the best way I can explain it, let me just lean into that for a minute, is that sometimes our kids really, I guess, feel guilty or they get this oversensitivity to growing up and needing to let go of the childhood girl that you once knew.

Michelle: And they always want to be our little girl, but then all of a sudden, they want to do big grown-up girl things and they want to shave, and they want to look at TikTok. And there’s this loss that they feel and they almost don’t want to present themselves to us as not your little girl anymore.

Michelle: And so I’ve seen, especially with a lot of girls and their moms, this little bit of this tension, because moms really want to be there for their girls in their life. But some girls will not talk to their moms about periods or they go and shave, or do other things without talking to their parents. And I think the earlier that we can get in and the earlier we can actually start to say, “Hey, you might have some very different ideas than I do,” and you might notice in the book, Andy, I’ve got a whole chapter on brain changes and helping them understand that they’re going to grow into a different person and that their parents are prepared and ready for that. And I think those conversations are equally as important as shaving, but should we get back to the shaving question?

Andy: Yeah, let’s do that.

Michelle: I think it’s super important that our kids know that whatever they do with their body is their choice and that boys and girls don’t have to shave, but they might want to shave, yeah? I say lots of things in schools just to help them understand, because at this age, they’re actually looking around at everybody else in the classroom and they’re seeing such differences in their body compared to other people’s. And so even with something like body here, girls or boys who have darker facial hair, you will see or notice it first.

Michelle: And kids who go through changes earlier or later, I think it’s a little harder on them because they feel a little bit more self-conscious and they don’t have this shared experience with their peers. So they’re walking this journey, they feel like they’re walking it alone a little bit. So to be able to really emphasize that uniqueness that they get to bring to this season of their life and that it’s their body, and it is their choice. And their body is theirs to manage and look after and care for. But things like shaving are very much a personal choice and that we should never judge, or we should never comment about other people’s body parts or what they choose to do with that inappropriately.

Andy: So we’re letting them know that if they want to, if they need any shaving supplies, if they need help knowing how to do that, we are open to teaching them these things, but that we’re not pressing it on them or making them feel like they have to do it.

Michelle: I love that. Do you want to laugh with me? I had this dear 14-year-old girl come up to me in a school and she said, “Michelle, you’ve got to help me.” I said, “Why?” She says, “My 10-year-old sister is refusing to shave, she’s gone all feminist.” And she said to me, “Michelle, you’ve got to talk to her. It’s disgusting.” And I was able to have the most beautiful chat with her about just uniqueness and championing her little sister. But they had very different ideas about it. And those ideas can evolve and change over time, and that’s okay. And things like supplies, Andy, there’s a lot in the book around even girls who are just living with dad and that kind of conversation that’s like, “Hey, dad, I need some supplies. Can I stop being your PA already?” And make sure that you remember this stuff. But those conversations for our girls that are living with dad can be a little bit more delicate and dads can be so wonderful at helping break the ice with that joy and that humor.

Michelle: I knew a dad who was walking through the grocery store with his girl. And he said to me, “I just flipped a packet of pads in.” And I said to her, “I guess you’ll be needing some of these soon.” And her daughter turned around and looked at her dad and he said, “I didn’t even know you knew about that.” So for me, oftentimes, I think that kids, no matter what they’re experience is, feels like they’re the only ones. And they don’t think that sometimes their parents even know about their experience, unless their parents are prepared to vocalize it.

Andy: What about testosterone? You were talking about how the brain changes. So what do we need to know about the changes that testosterone brings?

Michelle: I have two boys and obviously spend a lot of time with young people in schools as well. And these heavy hits of hormone changes, whether it be testosterone or for our girls, can come as a shock to our kids and that surge of aggression that they might feel, or they might notice some of their peers getting a lot more aggressive when they play sport and really care about winning. And all of a sudden, there’s a lot more push and shove happening. And some of our boys who are probably not on the front foot of puberty are actually starting to notice changes in their peers as far as that competitive rough side goes of particularly our boys. And so when I’m talking about this to young people, it’s so, so important that they realize that I guess those changes that they feel, if they ever feel a little bit unlike themselves, it’s really, really normal. And on the other hand, they’re leaning into these traits like compassion and they’re leaning into self-control and they’re leaning into these other traits.

Michelle: Now, kids can actually look at themselves and feel estranged and guilty because all of a sudden, they’re feeling more aggressive. Or I’ve known little boys to be slamming a door, hitting a wall, or absolutely in tears that are overwhelming them, but not understanding where that’s coming from. So giving our kids that education and also wrapping our arms around them and saying, “Hey, you know you can borrow my calm when you don’t have it? And I can be here and I can help be that prefrontal cortex when yours is offline a little bit. I can actually fill in the gaps for a few years here and that’s okay.”

Andy: What do we need to teach boys about girls’ bodies and how girls’ bodies are changing so that they can be good friends to girls in their lives, so they can be good brothers to their sisters and all of that?

Michelle: I love this because I spend a lot of time talking to boys about this in my presentations. And I often have all the kids in one session.

Andy: Okay.

Michelle: But when I talk about.. Let’s use the period issue, okay?

Michelle: When I talk about periods, obviously I’m talking about girls who were assigned female at birth and were going through that. But at that moment, I’ve got boys’ full attention and they’re at an age where they’re ready to absorb that information, but they’re also going, “Okay, what do I do with this information?” And so I would say boys need to know everything about what their female friends and moms and sisters go through. But I’d also say that we need to empower them practically with the values to know about how to step back and give girls privacy. I’ll talk about pads and I say to boys, “If you ever see a girl take something like this out of her bag and put it in her pocket and start walking to the toilets, it’s probably not a good idea for you to say, ‘Guess what I just saw? I think she’s got her periods.'”

Andy: Mm-hmm.

Michelle: Because so oftentimes, boys at that age, they don’t have a great filter. And so we really have to break it down for them and talk to them about the appropriateness of privacy. I talk to them about tiny drips of blood. And if a girl was to get some blood on the back of her skirt, because you don’t have a puberty watch that tells you when your periods are going to come and you can see the boys’ eyes widening like, “Holy moly, that’s a lot to handle.”

Michelle: And that’s a good thing because we want to draw out compassion in them too. We want to give them an understanding of that. And so I say if that ever happens, if you’re a girl, you’d probably go straight to that girl and you’d say to them, “Hey, I think I’ve seen a few drops of blood on the back of your skirt. Do you want to go to the office and sort that out? Or should we head to the teacher because this is way too much to handle on your own?” But I say, boys, don’t use the same strategy. So you probably wouldn’t go straight up to your friend who’s a girl and put your arm around her and say, “Hey, you want to come to the office and sort this out?”

Michelle: You’d probably go straight to a grown-up, a trusted adult, and say, “Hey, I’m not an expert, but I think I’ve seen, and being the gentleman that I am and knowing that you would be much better at working this out than I would be, I’m going to leave this in your hands.” And you can see that boys go, “Okay, I can do that. I can do that. Yeah, I can be respectful.” And it goes both ways too, Andy. It’s helping our girls to understand if they do see an erection that they need to recognize the fact that no one likes their body parts being talked about inappropriately. And that privacy is just that really important thing to factor into their relationships as their bodies start changing. And it’s one way they can be a really good friend to each other.

Andy: So what about hygiene and all of the new hygiene practices that come along with puberty? How do we have the discussion about those and encourage those without saying, “Hey, you smell that?”

Michelle: Yeah. If they know that with puberty and the change in hormones, and oftentimes the change in food that they’re eating too.

Michelle: Their body is going to smell differently. And with that comes a greater responsibility to look after it. And we can package this in such a way that it becomes a grown-up thing to step into as well. But showering, there’s this thing called soap that they need to start to use, and brushing their teeth twice a day, not lying to their mom in the morning and sneaking out the door. Things like that become a little more important. And I think around that eight to 12 age group, they can still be a little lazy and they’re not driven by possibly other people’s opinions of them so much yet. So that peer influence hasn’t really kicked in. And so we’re getting them to have the disciplines that it takes to look after yourself, even sleep hygiene and looking after their bed to time routines in preparation for those teenage years. I think it’s a really powerful time in their life to do that.

Andy: So what do you need to say, or how do you have that conversation? It’s just about instructing them that their body’s going to be smelling different and grown-ups do certain things.

Michelle: Yeah, that’s right. And things like deodorant and however that looks for your family. So whether it’s crystal deodorants or spray on, a roll on, or whatever your family chooses to use, but they might have their own grown-up supplies of things that they’re going to need because they’re growing up. And I think you can add a bit of fun to that as well. For our girls, there’s the eco-friendly hygiene products that they have to explore as well. And I think all of those things our kids are keenly interested in, and now’s a great time to give them all the options and to educate them around that and allow them to make the choices that they need to make for their bodies.

Andy: What do we teach boys and girls about just talking to each other in general?

Michelle: Okay. Becoming more comfortable talking to each other. I think as soon as they hit those puberty years, they can start to do the boy, girl germ thing where they start to see each other as that foreign species. And they go, “They’re different than I am,” and I think they start noticing differences. But really helping them realize that they’re the same person underneath all that. And you’ll notice oftentimes because girls are hitting puberty early and girls are having these growth spurts and they’re towering over their male friends. And some of our kids are just really tall and others are still looking like little kids. So if you look at a football field of 13-year-olds, the differences in their bodies are just huge. And so helping them really just see the heart of people and not just their bodies and realize that people who maybe look taller can still like the same things that you like, that they’re not turned into some foreign species.

Michelle: And so all those basic social skills of talking about normal things. And if you’re feeling uncomfortable, recognizing that that person’s probably not feeling uncomfortable, that’s probably you. And recognizing too that if someone stops talking, it’s often not because they don’t like you, it’s because maybe they don’t know what else to say. And so giving them that empathy and allowing them to put themselves in the shoes of somebody else is super important. And as they’re reaching those years where they’re going to high school, isn’t finding sameness in each other and being able to start conversations freely and with an open heart so important?

Andy: Huge.

Michelle: It’s huge, isn’t it? Our kids can shut the door to that and almost get a little bit insecure around these years if we don’t help them understand that inside, people are exactly the same.

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About Michelle Mitchell

An award-winning speaker, author and educator, Michelle started her career as a primary school teacher before leaving that position to found a harm prevention charity called Youth Excel. For the next 20 years Youth Excel continued to grow and work with schools, alternative education, and child safety. One of Michelle’s most successful projects was opening a private practice which offered psychology, counseling, and mentoring services to young people aged 6 – 18. Her team of 12 staff serviced 120 families and 50 local schools with tailor made care.

Michelle’ work has been featured on The Today Show, Today Tonight, and Channel 10 Morning News, as well as countless print media including The Age, The Courier Mail, and Daily Telegraph. She is a regular contributor to radio. Michelle speaks to groups of parents, students, and professionals in schools and conferences. Her down-to-earth, energetic, and passionate style resonates with a broad range of people and enables her to transfer years of hands-on experience to others in a practical and honest way.

She is a registered teacher and lives with her husband and two teenagers in Brisbane, Australia.

Want More Michelle?

This is our third interview with Michelle. Her first interview and second interview were both phenomenal as well. You can also find Michelle on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.