How To Talk To Your Kids About Puberty / Interview With Michelle Mitchell
Talking about puberty can be so awkward! What do you say? Where do you start? How do you get your tween or teen to open up?
These are all questions that we answer in this episode with the fabulous Michelle Mitchell. Michelle has practical and insightful wisdom from years of experience working with kids and parents and the most wonderful way of sharing this information with us and our kids.
Michelle is an author, speaker and advocate for families and parenting teenagers. She is the author of 2 new books, “A Girls Guide To Puberty”, and “A Guys Guide to Puberty”. She is also a mother of two teenagers. And lives in Brisbane, Australia.
What You Will Learn:
- What is normal when puberty hits and how you can support your kids in positive ways.
- What to say and not say when it comes to having the important puberty conversations.
- What to do if your kid says they don’t want to talk about puberty and the changes they are experiencing.
- How to be that open, safe and warm place that your kids will want to talk to even when it’s awkward.
- How to approach the puberty talk with a lightness and fun spirit versus fear and dread.
- How important it is to listen when you are having these conversations.
- And More!
Transcribed Notes from episode below and you can access The Moms of Tweens and Teens podcast recording HERE.
SHERYL: Michelle, welcome back, and thank you for coming on so late – your time. You’re in Australia, I want our listeners to know that because I think it’s so cool that we can connect here. And it’s 10, almost 10 pm your time, 7 am my time here in Chicago, and so thank you so much.
MICHELLE: My pleasure. Every time we connect, I feel like I have a kindred spirit in the world. And it just takes me less than 10 seconds to feel loved again. So it’s just so beautiful. And thank you for having me as part of your community. Look – I’ve just had a whole cup of coffee because it is 10 o’clock at night. I’m revved up.
SHERYL: Yeah, good, I hope you’ll be able to go to sleep, I have my exercise pants on so I could go exercise after this. So funny. But you are one of my favorite people because you have such practical and insightful advice. And also, you’re so warm. I’m so excited to talk about your two new books, “A Girl’s Guide to Puberty” and “A Guy’s Guide to Puberty.” It’s fabulous. I have the “Girls”, but we’re going to touch on boys too. But I love this book. And I want to start by talking about what led you to write these two books.
MICHELLE: They were kind of the books I felt like I had to write. I have worked with teenagers forever and ever. Even though I did start my career as a primary school teacher. But I saw that transition from primary school to high school seemed to be such a rough ride for a lot of kids. And I knew if I could get in and give them some really practical information about their body and just be very empowering, and build their confidence in this field as they went through that transition, it would make such a difference.
We know that research says that early education in this area actually helps them make wiser choices and adapt better as they go through that transition. I’m all about helping parents and kids connect. And I feel if we can build this platform of trust before our kids start having those really big brain and body changes, it’s gonna make a really big difference.
I didn’t want to just produce a fun book for kids about puberty. It’s also about brain changes. And it’s really about them embracing themselves. So it’s sort of a bigger picture book. And growing up, it’s meant to be fun, Sheryl, so I made sure there are lots of comics and, and lots of jokes, and my best stories are in there. And I want it to be fun for kids. And I think that’s such an important thing these days.
SHERYL: It is so warm, and it is fun, and it’s playful. And you normalize so much of it and make it so not awkward. I remember talking to my daughters, I have two daughters, one son, and I even recently, my youngest is 21, and I said breasts. And she was like, “Don’t use that word!”
MICHELLE: I actually teach in schools. So I do a lot of this puberty education in schools. And I tell them beforehand, I say I do this awkward waddle, if I’m going to say anything awkward, I’m going to give them warning beforehand. So they can prepare for it. And so they’re not sitting there the whole presentation going what’s going to come on the screens next. And I tell them I’m very good at my job so they can just all relax because I’ll take good care of them.
But it is so much different when we’re the parent isn’t it and we’ve got these two little beady eyes just looking at us. And we’ve got to come up with the goods and make it easy and fun and it’s a tall order.
SHERYL: Yeah, and you have different characters in the book. I laughed out loud at the Menstrual Sisters, Miss Pituitary, and the boys, Mr. Testosterone, and you made it so easy to understand.
I didn’t even know that one breast is 20% bigger than the other one. I was like, “Oh! That’s what’s wrong. I thought something was wrong with me.” And now it’s just so good and you cover every topic. I mean, shaving your legs and I just love it.
MICHELLE: Sheryl, so many of our kids have these big emotional days, and that’s when I did some research for the book and also for an upcoming book that I’m writing. So many of the young girls actually looked at their older sisters and they said, “Does it mean that I have to get emotional like my sister when I go through puberty? Because if I have to get that emotional, I don’t want it. Can we just skip the puberty bit? Because that looks like hard work.” And I think our kids can often look at older brothers and sisters and feel quite nervous about growing out because they can see what a struggle it is.
SHERYL: Yes. Well, let’s jump off that point that you’re making because I think that parents that are listening and carers – Do you say “carers” in Australia and Canada? We say, caregivers – we’re blindsided when they hit the tween years with the mood swings. And there’s so much going on that you explain to kids in the book of what’s happening in their body, so they can understand themselves. But that’s a piece that I find working with parents or caregivers that we don’t fully understand. And you speak a lot to that. So what is happening? We’re gonna see a lot of mood swings. Can you normalize this and tell our listeners a little bit about the changes they’re going to see?
MICHELLE: Yes, these hormones are not new for their body, but they start to get released in adult doses. So we know how little kids are, and they’re getting these adult doses of the hormones all of a sudden, and it’s very jarring for the brain. And their brains are going through changes as well. So that limbic system really turbocharged and, and their whole world can feel like it’s in a spin. And that’s why a little bit of education can make a lot of difference.
I think, for parents, they really need to be clear on the why. Why do I need to step into these topics with my kids? What on earth would motivate me to say the word breasts to my kids? Why do I need to do that? And I think for every family, the “why” is slightly different.
But I think a lot of families can really relate to that feeling of feeling a bit out of control as a teenager, and not understanding what’s going on. And if we dig into that as a “why” to bring safety around our kid’s lives, it can be a bit anchoring and motivate us to have some of these tough conversations.
SHERYL: Yes, if we can understand what is happening, that they’re going to be more emotional, they’re not always going to – you to talk about organization in the book – like you might struggle with that. And these are some of the things that you’re going to find, you’re going to have a lot more emotions.
And if we can understand that a lot of that behavior is normal, we’re going to be able to be that safer place for our kids to open up and talk to us. So what are some of the things that we can do in order to be that safe place for our kids when we’re having these conversations?
MICHELLE: So, high-quality conversations have three things, they have safety, they have joy, and they have choice part of them. And so when I talk to parents about these initial conversations that are different than their everyday conversations, there’s normally a kick start conversation, even if we’ve done a great job of talking to our kids about body parts and body safety, as they’ve gotten older, there’s normally a kickstart conversation that’s got a little bit more intensity to it. And that conversation has got to have safety around it, it’s got to feel joyful. So we’ve got to bring a bit of pizzazz to it. And it’s got to have choice. And if we can bring those elements into it, it can help it be a bit easier for our kids.
So safety might look like – “I want to have a grown-up conversation with you. And it’s probably going to last about 20 to 30 minutes.” So they know when we’re going to shut up, Sheryl – we’ve got to give them the safety of knowing that it’s packaged – a beginning and an end. Otherwise, they might think that we’re going to go on forever.
And I find in those instances, kids often opt out themselves. So that can bring safety, giving them choice around where the conversation happens. And making sure we come to it with some kind of sense of smile, and some fun, and a plan. I’ve even seen the most amazing CEOs of companies who speak for a living, get in front of their child, and just lose their way with this topic.
So coming with that kind of joyful, playful plan with it and being prepared with a resource. Or like a beginning, middle and end kind of strategy can really help parents.
SHERYL: Yes, that’s so good. And what don’t we say? They’re private at this age. But I know what I wanted to say to you. One thing that you say that I thought was very interesting, and we need to remember is they do want to have these conversations and I think they act like they don’t and so speak to that a little bit.
MICHELLE: I think too often our kids feel like they step into this grown-up space and start asking the grown-up questions like, “Can I shave my legs mom or I’ve heard about periods.” It’s almost like they’re letting go of a piece of their childhood, Sheryl. And they don’t want us to see them any differently. They always want us to see them as their little girl.
And so the moment they make that transition to asking grown-up questions and wanting to talk about grown-up things, I feel like there’s this little bit of loss and grief that goes on with them. And I think they get quite scared that their parents won’t do the journey with them, that their love will transfer all the way through.
And I’ve spoken to moms whose girls have hidden when they shave their legs, and I say to mums, could it be possible? Not that she didn’t want you as part of this journey? Because mums just it hits their heart, “why would she do that without talking to me? This was an experience I wanted to have with her.”
But I say, look, could it be possible that she’s just scared of being the grown-up girl in her relationship with you? And she realizes that at that moment, she feels like she’s letting go of something?
I’ve had kids come up to me after I’ve spoken and said, “Michelle, I’ve got this question. But I can’t ask my mom.” And I say, sweetie, why? Why do you feel like you can’t ask your mom? “Because well, she might think I’m rude.” And these are kids that I know – they come from this incredibly beautiful, loving, connected home. But they don’t want to be seen as maybe being rude, changing, different. And they put all those labels around that. And they’re scared.
I feel like it should never be our kids that have to initiate this. I feel like it’s something that we really need to be on the front foot of ushering them into that sense of becoming more grown-up and leading them into adolescence and saying My love is for you and will grow with you.
SHERYL: I love that. You interviewed for this – a focused survey – of over 500 kids? Was there anything that surprised you about what they said?
MICHELLE: Yeah, the one thing was this, and it kind of broke my heart a bit. A lot of our kids, like the vast majority, around 70% of our kids see their mum as the go-to person when they want to talk about something serious. And about 6.8% recognize their dad in that role. And that was really sad to me.
I’ve had a very engaged dad who knew how to step into these spaces, but also knew how to bring incredible respect to them too. So he really listened and looked for my cues of where I needed and wanted him in my life as a female growing up. And I just felt sad that there were a lot of girls that didn’t have that connection with their dad. And their dad didn’t know how to usher into that space in a way that worked.
SHERYL: I don’t think men have a lot of support around knowing how to share information, or it’s talked about “How do you talk to your daughter about these things?” Like we do as women, there’s so much more for us.
And what would you say to the mom that is feeling frustrated? Maybe that her husband isn’t talking to the son, or to the daughter about these things? And then it seemed like – because I remember with my oldest – feeling like I was kind of trying to force it or control it with my husband, which wasn’t very helpful. I did it differently, thankfully, with my youngest, but I think we can feel a little panicky or they’re not talking to their son about the changes. What would you say to the mom that relates to that?
MICHELLE: I think a lot of dads haven’t had great communication with their dad growing up or haven’t had that model, it’s really hard for them to step into something that they’ve never experienced themselves. And so some dads have a reluctance and a hesitancy and I’m not sure it’s wise or helpful for us to push them beyond their comfort levels with it.
But I kinda always say this, you’ve got a kid’s comfort level and a dad’s comfort level or a mom’s comfort level, and they meet somewhere in the middle on natural ground, and that’s the building place.
I think we as a female who feels maybe more comfortable in that space sometimes can say, “Look, this is what I could see this could become and this is how I see our daughter needs you.” Helping them with where the starting point is and nurturing it. From there, I feel like with expectations, just jump this step where we need to take it from a step where everyone’s comfortable.
And that includes our girls. I feel like girls give some really strong messages and cues about where they do and don’t want their data and those privacy levels. And it is so important that we respect those boundaries with our girls. If they don’t want to directly talk to their dad about their periods, I feel like that voice is important to be heard as well. I’m very passionate, Sheryl, about making sure that kids have a lot of say in this process.
I feel like we have an agenda a lot with kids, and we don’t really tune in, and listen to what they want, and what they need, and how they want to journey this thing. And I think we would do so much better just coming side by side and taking our time. There’s no rush.
You know, some kids are just young. And some kids struggle with anxiety, and some kids for all different reasons have different comfort levels. And I feel like, the more we push our agenda rather than get side by side with kids, the more it goes wrong.
SHERYL: Yeah, that’s why I love the book, too. At the beginning of the book, you talk to the kids about, “this is your safe place to come. You also say if you’re uncomfortable” – I had written down exactly how you say it – but it was so warm and inviting and inviting them to talk to a safe person. But also, if you’re uncomfortable right now, there are some resources where they can go and find answers when they are uncomfortable. And so I do think we need both. Or we can use your books as a jumping-off guide as well for conversations.
MICHELLE: It’s amazing when parents put my book in a pack of five books and just say, “Hey, there’s some books for you on the bench.” It’s normally the puberty book that makes its way up into the bedroom and gets hidden somewhere.
And even if they take a little bit of time to warm up to talking to us about it, I think that every kid deserves access to quality information that’s come from us, that’s from a trusted source that we’ve approved, and we deem to be healthy for them. If we don’t step up and do it, unfortunately, Google’s just there. And we don’t want them to turn to that. And I think all kids deserve that.
At the beginning of the book, Sheryl, I said if you’re uncomfortable with any part, just skip it and come back to it another day. And that’s I think the message that is really important, I think for even parents having a list of things they want to talk about with their kid. But ask them to choose a different topic every week. So you’re getting a gauge of where they want to start and where their comfort level is. And they have some power and choice in it as well. And they feel safe with the process.
SHERYL: Yeah, I love that – following their lead as well. But make sure to have the conversations – don’t just abandon it. If they’re not asking if they’re acting like they don’t want to talk about it, because they really do want to talk about it.
So let’s shift gears here. And I have a question from a mom that talks about her son – she’s a single mom – and she said, “I have a very open relationship with my kids. But my oldest is 11. They’re both boys. And he will not even try to converse with me about it (meaning puberty). I’m a single mom. So having him talk to his dad isn’t an option.” What would you say to her?
MICHELLE: I guess for every parent out there just know there’s an age and a stage where kids get terribly self-conscious. If you can get in a little bit before that, before the roller doors go up, I call it the window of opportunity. They’re just mature enough to hear it yet their body consciousness has not kicked in.
But when we don’t catch it at that stage, and some kids probably zoom through that stage, and it’s impossible to catch as well. And there’s a lot of self-consciousness around it. There are things that we can do to make sure they get that education and we can drip feed things as well. So we can think of little two-minute conversations that we can have on the fly. So it’s not so intense. We can put a book in a room for some girls (more than boys probably, Sheryl) . A shared journal can work.
I’ve seen parents write a question slipping under their pillow and then they write a question back so it takes that face to face out of it. Talking in the car again those two-minute conversations creating that list and getting them to choose. Even being able to say to them “Look, I know this is uncomfortable”, and just being honest about the elephant in the room but saying, “It’s actually a really important conversation for us to have. So what can I do to make this more comfortable? Would you be okay, if I talked for five minutes today, and then maybe we could pick it up again next week.”
So just trying to do that kind of drip-feed approach, but giving them power and choice in it. And slowly, slowly, I think the more they hear our voice on these topics, the easier it becomes as well.
SHERYL: Yeah, I like that. You mentioned that in the book. It’s really awkward in the beginning, but the more you talk about it, the less awkward it becomes, which I think we need to remember.
MICHELLE: And if we set the bar low to start with it doesn’t have to knock it out of the park, even if it’s a two-minute conversation, and our son grunts back and goes, “how disgusting”, it goes in. I think we need to remember, it’s not just the technical that we’re trying to get across. It’s the values that underpin that. And it’s the application to life that no one can give our kids except us. No teacher in a school, no book.
Honestly, what we bring to it is so critical for our kids. So if we’re connected to our why it will motivate us to keep taking baby steps into that space. But early and often Sheryl, early and often.
SHERYL: Yes. You said there’s research that shows us that this is so important that we have these conversations. What are you saying? We have the conversation with them when they’re younger, and when they hit high school, what’s the difference is that is having these conversations?
MICHELLE: Choices around safe sex, unsafe sex choices, and decisions and understanding consent, it all starts in their understanding and appreciating their body, having the right language for things. And I know we’re very conscious of our kid’s safety these days.
Unfortunately, when I do presentations in schools, it’s not uncommon for kids to then say, “I’ve got the language now”, to describe the abuse that’s been happening. And it’s so important. So it’s more likely to give them a voice for good choices. As they become teenagers a voice to express any form of unhealthy relationships around their life and give them a platform to process that. But also the ability to adapt and love their growing body.
For some kids, puberty is a shock. And you know this Sheryl, that aggressive hit of hormones, can actually make kids feel quite fearful in their own body, they feel like a different person. And that can sort of cause some confidence issues and take them on a spin. And we want to wrap them in safety and routine and love during those times. And so being comfortable to lean into it. And to give them the education they need just can stabilize things.
SHERYL: It really is about our bodies, isn’t it? And learning to love and accept our bodies and own them as ours, that they belong to us. When we become more aware of them and take down those walls of talking about it. Because I was reading and gosh, I really could have used a book like this. Because there was some shame involved in talking about parts of the body, like the word vagina, oh my gosh, don’t talk about this. But you normalize that where we can talk about in such a normal way and understand the different parts of our private parts. And like, “Oh, this is a beautiful part of me. So it takes away a lot of the discomfort.”
MICHELLE: It’s talking about it in a way that adds value, not in a way that’s icky or unhealthy. And I think our kids really need to distinguish the difference between those two things. When kids are uncomfortable or feeling awkward in my presentations, I tell them that’s such a good thing. Because that’s this sense of privacy and private parts are not something they talk about with strangers and it’s not something – they’re normally in school talking about math.
So having someone they don’t know there, is a good thing, they have a sense of this is a bit different and I’ve got to be a bit cautious here. And helping them understand that sense that in them that’s there to protect them is all part of this, especially for our girls, Sheryl.
Too often, sex has been talked in or talked to in a way that’s very shaming and even with girls with their bodies. Being able to own their body and the beauty industry’s messages that are constantly bombarding our girls. We know that about 86% of our girls are uncomfortable or dissatisfied with one part of their body or more by the time they’re 11 years old.
So we’ve got a generation of kids who are comparing themselves to photoshopped images, not even real people, they’re comparing themselves to avatars. I don’t know in your area, but we had Elle McPherson in Australia, who was the ultimate model, and we called her “The Body”. But she was a real person, Sheryl. And girls, 8, 9, 10, and 11 are growing up. And what are they comparing themselves to, they’re not even comparing themselves to reality. And it’s really sad to see them not be able to really love and cherish who they are.
SHERYL: Yeah, technology has certainly added a whole other layer to everything. I can’t imagine having Instagram. Farrah Fawcett, I’m a little older than you, Farah, for us, it was really big. And I could not for the life of me have had that hairstyle. At that time, I can’t imagine trying to post my hair. I didn’t know how to do it, post on social media, and try to look a certain way – it wouldn’t have worked – our girls and our boys are feeling that.
So as we close, I want you to speak about boundaries because you talk in the box about boundaries and developing boundaries around people touching all of those things. Even how to speak back to what people say that’s uncomfortable. What would you say to moms? How can we coach our girls and our boys around having boundaries?
MICHELLE: This is an area that I’m very passionate about, because I, unfortunately, come across this so often in schools. And the number one thing that we just touched on before is, when children have the correct language and a safe space, it helps them communicate and express anything that’s happening that is unhealthy. And I think we don’t realize how powerful giving kids the correct language about their body is and helping create that environment where that language is comfortable for them to be using. And they realize it is okay to say those words – vagina or penis or whatever it be. Because I think what happens with kids sometimes is even the fear of saying those words, stops them trying to communicate what’s happening.
So teaching them the correct names of their body, having open dialogue, but teaching them that they’re the boss of their body, there are rules to protect kids, because private parts are private. And so it’s just very basic things that we can talk to our kids about at such a young age that just brings a level of safety around them, and an open door and open communication, if they ever need to bring up something that it’s potentially unsafe for them.
SHERYL: Yeah, creating the language where they can talk about it, but those boundaries come out of that. That’s good. I don’t think we often connect those two.
MICHELLE: We think we have to talk to them about abuse, or we have to start up here, it actually starts right down here. And it starts with the language, but also the trust, and we’re modeling what it’s like to talk safely about your body.
An example I use is when I talk to kids I say to them, that I’m not an unsafe person, and their parents have had to sign off on me talking to them, I have teachers in the room, I’m not talking to you in a way that’s one on one or that you’re uncomfortable with. Or give them some kind of idea that as an educator I’m coming in and the difference between that and someone talking to them in an unhealthy way about sex.
And as parents too, we’re modeling exactly that same thing. And I think some of the basis of that is respect. When they’ve had enough or they’re feeling overwhelmed, just take that step back. You don’t have to fit it all in an hour session. You’ve got time. Keep drip-feeding it, keep stepping up to the plate, keep initiating it, but also show them what respect looks like in a real conversation. And when it comes to their body and around this topic, they should have a whole lot to say about how this happens.
SHERYL: I’m so glad you mentioned respect because that was the word that was coming up for me. And it really helps. Then our kids are going to be more apt to listen to their gut when something doesn’t feel respectful. If we can respect them, and teach them to respect their bodies and respect other people’s bodies, then it’s like that little antenna goes up, “No, this doesn’t feel good to me.”
MICHELLE: That’s right. And it’s not just keeping them safe from adults either. And I think this is the harsh reality that most sexual abuse actually happens from peer to peer from children. And so even in sleepovers and different places they go that they are in positions where from a very young age, they’re needing to be the boss of their body. But yet, Sheryl, in all of this intensity, we have to make growing up fun as well, and to bring this in such a way that’s not overwhelming for them. But it’s light enough that they can apply it to their life and their world.
SHERYL: I love that you’re ending on that note because as we talk about it, I can only imagine listeners in a panic, like, “Oh, my gosh, I have to get this done.” Because they have to keep them safe. And so we bring this energy, and then our kids are like, “Whoa, I don’t want to go there with you.” Because then it’s negative. And it’s fear-based. Treating this like, “our bodies are exciting. Let’s talk about how they’re growing and developing.” And in the books, you definitely hit on that, like how your body is amazing. Look what it does. Isn’t that incredible? Yes, it’s so good.
MICHELLE: Even for girls to be really just positive about that menstrual cycle. Feeling empowered so they feel empowered with it. And they’ve got choices regarding their hygiene products. And I always like to do that with girls, because I feel like they should know the options available to them. And as part of making grown-up decisions, and a little bit more of that – paring choices as they go through that process can really help them have a bit more of a positive attitude as well.
SHERYL: In the book, I learned you were talking about pads and what they used to use back in the old days like they use animal furs or something? I know about the rags, but Oh, my goodness. And you’re like, “we’ve come a long way. And now we have thin ones”, I just loved it. I was laughing out loud. It was so good. So tell our listeners where to find your books. And you also have a course that’s available.
MICHELLE: I do. My books are mainly on my website at the moment, which is michellemitchell.org. And people can look at samples of them and have a lot of fun reading some of the comics there as well. But for international kind of customers, we’ve got an online course called “Talking About Puberty.” And it is basically the presentation I do in schools. It’s everything in the book put into video format. And I’ve used the comics and they’re animated. It’s super fun, Sheryl, it’s so fun, we spent forever on it. But it is a beautiful visual way to be able to get this content to kids. And it’s the type of thing you could watch together, they could watch on their own, and then you could watch it together. And it’s just another way if kids are not into reading, they can digest some really good content.
SHERYL: Now, that’s wonderful that you’ve made that available. And so I’m going to put the link so that moms can find it easily. And then also you have all that on the website that they can find it. Thank you so much, Michelle, for being here. And love the work that you do so much. And yeah, love you. So thank you.
MICHELLE: I hope I was articulate enough for 10 o’clock at night.
SHERYL: You absolutely were. We’ll have to do this again, it would be great to come back and talk about boys too.
MICHELLE: Absolutely. So I have a 23-year-old and a 20-year-old but it wasn’t that long ago. Let me tell you, I can remember it. It’s a different journey for boys. Their language is not developed as quickly as girls and we don’t have quite the time pressure with girls. So life gets complicated with girls a little bit quicker. And with our boys, they need us to approach it with a lot of fun. I think they do.
SHERYL: A lot of playfulness So thank you and good night, sleep well. And thanks so much.
MICHELLE: Thank you, love to your audience too, night.
Where To Find Michelle Mitchell:
Her website: https://michellemitchell.org/
Her books: “A Girls Guide To Puberty”, and “A Guys Guide to Puberty”