Sex educator Al Vernacchio strides into the room wearing a superhero outfit: A blue top with “POW” emblazoned across the chest in a bright yellow starburst. Shiny gold arm sleeves. A blue mask over his glasses. His cape billows behind him.
A study published earlier this year shows that girls feel unprepared for puberty. As a result, this time in their lives is marked by negative experiences. Vernacchio traces this to our culture’s general discomfort with — and disrespect of — women’s sexuality. “Young women are not encouraged to talk about their bodies or know their bodies or experiment with their bodies,” he says. “Everybody expects that, by the time a boy enters puberty, he knows what looks like, what it feels like, what’s normal for it. But it can be pretty common for a girl to go into puberty never having seen her own vulva.”
There is a similar discomfort around puberty. “We often frame puberty in these really negative ways,” Vernacchio says. “We need to figure out how to talk about things like periods that aren’t scary or gross or anxiety-producing.”
And we need to start much sooner. Many of us — parents and educators alike — pay lip service to the idea that sex education should be a lifelong process. But in reality, we don’t teach kids much before puberty. And because we wait so long to start talking about our kids’ sexuality, parents tend to be just as unprepared as their children. “Parents keep waiting until they see those signs of puberty,” says Eva Goldfarb, a sexuality educator. “But if you have zero conversations until ‘The Talk,’ the talk is not going to go anywhere.”
When we falter at preparing our daughters for puberty, the repercussions can be numerous. For one, if they don’t have the knowledge they need about their body and how it works, this time can come as a bit of a shock. “If they’re not emotionally ready,” says Cory Silverberg, a sex educator and the author of Sex Is a Funny Word, “they can experience something unwanted or weird or frightening.” And some studies have shown that poor genital self-image developed in childhood can affect one’s self-esteem, eventually having an adverse impact on one’s health care.
Here are 10 ways mothers can help prepare their daughters for puberty.
Do your homework. “If Mom didn’t have the best experience in puberty,” Vernacchio says, “she may need to do some advance work. I think it’s okay for moms to say they’re nervous about this conversation. And I think it’s okay for moms to share experiences from their own life that maybe aren’t positive, but come from the perspective of ‘that’s not what I want for you.’”
Set a good example. “The way you act gives your children a sense of what you think and believe about sexuality,” says Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, one of the groups behind the sex-ed video series AMAZE. “How you interact with your partner or spouse … what you say when you find your 3-year-old touching herself for pleasure (‘don’t do that’ or ‘don’t do that in public’?)… Each sends a message.”
Find ways to start the conversation. “We can prepare kids for change at any age,” Silverberg says. “Always be looking for opportunities to talk about how bodies change. Start planting those seeds.” One example Silverberg gives is pointing out how your child’s grandparents are changing, and then tying that to how everyone’s body changes over time.
Use other resources. Many of the educators quoted in this piece mention the AMAZE videos, and similar online resources. Others use books, television plots and even the news as starting points for a conversation about puberty, relationships and sexuality. “Regardless of the reaction you get,” Hauser says, “they are listening to you, and they appreciate that you’re trying.”
Make sure it’s a two-way conversation. “Set up a dynamic between you and your kid so that it isn’t about you delivering expert information from on high,” Silverberg says. “It should be understood that they’re going to ask questions, and you’re going to ask questions back.”
Don’t make assumptions. “Talk about what puberty looks like for all kids,” Silverberg says. “Avoid making assumptions about who your kid is going to be.”
Reassure them that they’re normal. Thea Eigo, a 15-year-old high school sophomore on the youth board for Advocates for Youth, says that one of the best things her mom did was to frame the changes that occur during puberty as normal. “I have an older sister, and she and my mom were always super open about things,” she says. “When I started going through puberty, it wasn’t weird at all. I had grown up hearing about periods and shaving. I felt comfortable talking about it. I didn’t feel lost.”
Keep it positive. Vernacchio uses the superhero framework so his students feel powerful, not powerless. “But even if the superhero part of it doesn’t connect with either you or your daughter, you can still talk about the idea of puberty as powerful,” he says. He recommends that mothers talk with their daughters about the women they admire. “One of the things that makes all these women so amazing,” Vernacchio explains, “is that they’ve navigated through this process of puberty — of getting these really cool abilities. I think whatever model you’re using, the important thing is to make going through puberty seem like a positive and exciting and empowering process.”
Warn them about sexism. “We don’t tell enough young women that if you move through the world as a woman, you’ll be treated differently,” Silverberg says. “If we don’t tell girls that enough and then they start experiencing it, they’ll think it’s just them, or that they’ve done something wrong.”
Be there. “The most important message you can give to your child is that you are an askable parent and that you’re there for them. That you love them unconditionally,” Hauser says.
“It’s important to let kids know they have a space to go if they need to,” Eigo adds. “It’s better to have an uncomfortable moment than not knowing how to approach the subject at all.”
For those who worry about giving their daughters too much information, and too soon, Goldfarb gives a final word of warning. “There’s a whole world out there waiting to teach your child things that don’t match your values,” she says. “You don’t get to abdicate that responsibility, because someone else will take it over.”
Stephanie Auteri blogs about motherhood at mom.me. She also writes about women’s health, sexuality and education for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Salon, Jezebel and other publications. Learn more at stephauteri.com, or follow her at @stephauteri.