While many children have started a new phase as they began secondary school September 5, and some parents are breathing a sigh of relief their children persevered and can “handle their stories”, clinical psychologist Alicia Hoyte says children need their parents now more than ever.
“All these massive changes are happening in their bodies, and it is overwhelming. All these mood changes that are happening, they are experiencing emotions and ways of thinking for the first time, and sometimes we abandon them,” Hoyte said.
She was the guest speaker August 29 for the Archdiocesan Family Life Commission’s Health and Family Life Education -The Parenting Edition series hosted by Tricia Syms, Episcopal Delegate for Family Life.
Episode 5 focused on Puberty, ages 11–14. The section on ‘Apprenticeship’ in Greg and Lisa Popcak’s Beyond the Birds and Bees was cited during the discussion.
Hoyte said parents respond with exasperation—”you are big enough to know better”, frustration, and even disgust “with the body odour that kicks in at this age” rather than realising the child needed them to journey alongside.
“They need us to be noticing…remembering our own experience… notice what they are going through and give to them what you felt you needed back at that point in time.” Parents should not think they made it through puberty and their children can do the same.
Hoyte advised parents to find ways to “ease the pain and discomfort” for the physical changes the child is experiencing. Parents can feel fearful and overwhelmed but they must help them understand and teach how to take care of their body.
Explanations should be given in simple language without shaming or oversexualisation. Hoyte said it “does not have to be one long single talk, treat with issues as they arise”.
Hoyte explained puberty is “that period in which our bodies reach sexual maturation and become capable of reproduction”. Puberty can begin from nine years.
Humans are born with primary sexual characteristics i.e., external, and internal genitalia but it is during puberty when hormonal changes start that secondary characteristics —facial and chest hair in males and the development of breasts, widening of hips, onset of menstruation in females— develop.
Hoyte said the processes are natural and parents should get comfortable using the correct biological language. The onset of menstruation is communicated “in [a] calm logical way, with a sense of wonder and awe that we are created like this by God, to communicate this bit by bit to our children because it is terrifying…to just start bleeding.”
Citing, the Popcak’s definition of sexuality as the ability to give oneself as a gift to others by working for the good of the other, Hoyte said it was not too late to start teaching children who they are is a gift to God and to others.
She commented that it is said men are God’s gift to women, but instead of sexualising language, parents speak about “who I am as gift to another. How I use myself, my body, and my strength.”
Hoyte told of how she complimented her sons for their “gentlemanliness” and strength when they helped at home. It was a way of honouring their contribution, gentlemanliness, and dignity.
“When you’ve had that larger conversation about ‘thank you for your part played in [the] home’, not just for boys, also for girls…it extends then to their sexuality and this healthy working reproductive system they have… will one day be part of the gift they share of themselves, to their partner, their family.”
In the case of boys, she suggested parents teach them “to regard and respect that gift as part of who they are rather than [an] overemphasis on sperm”. Hoyte disclosed many children, especially boys are exposed to pornography from Standard Five to Form One and this can be their first encounter with sex and sexuality. She urged parents to give a “counter message”.
Hoyte explained, “That objectification of the body and overemphasis on pleasure that sex seems to bring, and glamourisation of sex out of a context, and so it is important to give a context from an understanding of this is what God created us to be, and it is beautiful and sacred and has to be guarded and used well.”
Outlining a few tips on how parents can navigate through puberty, Hoyte said parents need to display empathy. “Reflect on their own experiences and give the child the information, support and compassion they [the parents] would have needed at that stage.”
Give context. The child is at an age when they are growing in their capacity for moral understanding and understanding abstract concepts. Parents can share explanations and reasons for the changes they are experiencing.
Shift from the “bouff and beat mentality”. Give “tools” to the child e.g., deodorant to combat body odour and sanitary napkins for menstruation. Help
the child with a routine to use the tools even while at school. “Don’t leave them to be exposed to teasing and bullying because of things like body odour or growth changes. Help them navigate that with good advice and guidance,” Hoyte said.
Be the “calm in the room” as children go through feelings of guilt, anger, shame, embarrassment, over excitement, infatuation. Journey with them through the changes.
Tell the truth about sex. Hoyte said this should be done “in measured amounts as it comes up. As you see them dealing with an erection or wet dream, as they are having pain from their periods as their bodies are growing, changing.”
Children should be taught their bodies are a gift from God and a responsibility to be regarded.