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The first pimple: Talking to your kids about puberty

Times sure have changed since many of us were going through those tender pubescent years. Certain subjects were simply taboo! Nobody discussed them except at slumber parties or late night during Girl Scout camping trips, and not without a lot of giggling and embarrassment. In a day when information is available at every turn, it is becoming increasingly vital that parents take on a proactive approach in keeping open lines of communication between themselves and their children, both boys and girls.
How often do our kids come home misinformed or confused about their growth and development because they received information from an unreliable source? It might have been television, a friend, a book, or a web site. Alternately, how often do our kids need to be reined in with their knowledge, because they have been exposed to more than they can handle at this age? We do not get these years back, so managing our kids' perception of maturing is critical.

Discussing the delicate subject of puberty should not be looked upon as a one shot deal. It ought to be an on-going process, maturing in nature as your child grows and is able to manage more profound concepts along the way. Being open and honest when questions are asked is important, but don't wait until you are approached by your child with questions. Instead, look for ways to round out what is happening in your child's life whenever you can.

"Our pediatrician has been very good about broaching all the sensitive subjects with my daughters (include career choices… even asked at an early age, academic success, smoking, drugs, sex, and peer pressure)," says Anne Hoffman of Cincinnati, who is a mother of two teenage daughters. "Since mothers are excused from the examining room during these conversations, it provides an opening for follow-up conversation in the car on the way home. And the added benefit of both of us looking out the front window of the car minimizes eye contact, which makes a sensitive discussion easier. I do think it is important to ask what was discussed in an off-hand, casual manner, being careful not to force the child to relate anything she doesn't want to. Questions like 'what did the doctor say about...' are good openings," she continued.

Look for opportunities to discuss the sensitive subjects, such as personal care and hygiene. Kids' bodies go through so many changes in the short course of two to three years, and hormones play a huge role in these transitions. Natural body odor, increased oil-gland production, and peer standards all require a daily regiment of bathing and more stringent personal care. Be sure that you are open to providing products that your child is willing and eager to use regularly.

"My daughter reached the point where she felt she was old enough to police her own showers. The deal then was that I wouldn't say anything unless she went two days without a shower. This was somewhat successful because it made her responsible for herself. Also, a shopping trip to pick out her own deodorant is good, too," says Anne.

Talk to your young child about new sexual urges and curiosities so that he knows how to handle it. Discuss the physical, as well as moral, implications of sexual activity so that he knows exactly where you stand. That will be his knowledge base for the future, so face it head on.

Educate your daughter about menstruation before it happens. Assure her that you will be there to help her manage all facets of it, to ease her worries. Get her some good books to which she can refer. Knowledge is power, so arm your daughter before it starts!

Be aware at all times about things that influence your kids. Know exactly what they watch on TV, know how long they spend in front of a computer and what they're doing on it, and be conscientious about who their friends are. Know their friends' parents, or at least, meet them. When you drop off your child at a friend's house, take a minute to introduce yourself if you haven't met the mom and dad beforehand. Not only does checking up on your kids periodically keep you informed as to their activities, it also sends a strong message to them that says that you care. Yes, they might appear irritated when given the third degree about their whereabouts, but deep down they are reminded of your love and concern.

Encourage your child to participate in wholesome outside activities, such as scouting, church groups, sports, and music lessons. A bored child is a child that gets in trouble, but more to the point, an active child grows socially and learns many things about himself and his abilities. The more exposure a young person has to what life offers, the wider array of choices he will have in later years.

Remember that you were there, too, years ago, and that it is so helpful for your child to have someone calm and understanding to talk to about these matters. Try not to get flustered if a question that you haven't anticipated comes out of left field. Put on a thoughtful expression, take a deep breath, and give a relaxed, matter-of-fact answer as accurately as you can. Your son or daughter will appreciate your candor and honesty.

A solid foundation, with lifestyle choices demonstrated, plays a big role in providing our kids with the ability to make good decisions. Try to sit down to a home-cooked, well-balanced dinner every evening. Talk about "good" versus "bad" foods, and what we need to be healthy. Discuss protein, calcium and vitamins. Encourage exercise, not in the manner of work-outs at the gym, but in keeping active in daily living. The interesting thing is that schools often make this easier because science classes are a lot more comprehensive in this area. But, like so many other things, it must start at home.

"Dinner was very important in our household. And today, there are numerous statistics about the benefits of eating together as a family," says Mary Jo Rulnick, award winning parenting advice columnist and author of The Frantic Woman's Guide to Feeding Family and Friends. "Dinner was a chance to find out about the kids' day and to tell them about my day. Even on days when my husband couldn't make it home in time, the kids and I would eat together and then they would have dessert while their dad was eating his meal. We bonded as a family during this time. And most of the time it was about their friends, what the teachers were doing at school or upcoming field trips. We were concentrating on the things going on in their lives rather than just asking about their day."

Our children need to understand that it is what is on the inside that matters, and that is a tough thing to teach when there is such tremendous pressure on young people today to have a certain body type at far too early an age. Naturally, a child's body image plays a large role in self-esteem. Be mindful not to criticize your own appearance in front of your kids, as they will learn to do the same of themselves. So much of our appearance is a direct result of our heredity, which we cannot alter! Instead, help them to appreciate their physical virtues, such as pretty hair, clear skin, or a lovely smile. Play up the good, and play down the less desirable traits. Placing emphasis on integrity, honesty, hard work, good grades, participating in outside activities, and contributing to the well-being of the family are all far more important.

It is always interesting to watch our children engage in social activities with long-term friends as well as new ones. And peer pressure is an ever-present part of that, whether it is readily apparent to us or not. What gives a child the strength to say "no" when encouraged to make a bad choice? Whether the option involves alcohol, drugs, sex, or smoking, the strength to say "no" comes from a strong knowledge base about the potential dangers, on-going moral instruction, and a strong appreciation of oneself as a valued and valuable person, all of which come from us as parents. It is our job to give these tools to our children on a routine basis, through open discussion, living as examples, and contant reminders to our kids that they are deeply loved and cherished.

"During my daughter's teenage years, now 25, she thought I was a terrible mother because we didn't have the "friend" relationship that her peers had with their parents. You see, we had rules in our house and when the rules were broken she was grounded. Our kids were responsible for their actions. Very few of her friends were ever grounded. However, a year ago, we were at a Mother's Day Tea and my daughter told the mother of a seven-year-old that she wanted to raise her kids just like she was raised. Deanna graduated from college and has a good job and her former high school friends quit college are still partying," says Mary Jo.

The bottom line in easing our youngsters through these tough years is open communication. Candid discussions whenever possible, coupled with compassion and an openness to them as individuals, paves the way for a life-long strong relationship between parent and child. And isn't that what we all want for our families?

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