2008-01-25 / Community

It's My Turn

Puberty and Teens: A Necessary Education
By Mary Ann Keim- President, I'm All Girl, Inc.

Mary Ann Keim Mary Ann Keim MaryAnn Keim, president of the I'm All Girl, Inc. (and Boys Too!), a company created and dedicated to helping educate preteens (and their parents) about puberty. She can be reached at maryann@imallgirl.com or visit her website: www.imallgirl.com.

As we put away our holiday decorations and the bills start trickling in, and we all start focusing on the year ahead, I urge the parents of preteens and teenagers to make a resolution to talk to their children about puberty.

Turn on the television, open any newspaper of magazine and you realize that we live in a highly sexualized society. Preteens/teens are consistently being bombarded by the media to look sexy, be sexy, act sexy. Yet they lack the very knowledge that can help them understand and process these images. The American Psychological Association called this phenomenon "Sexualization" and conducted a study in the year 2000 to find out its effects on girls. This study linked "Sexualization" to the three most common health problems in girls: eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem.

Boys aren't immune either. Recent statistics show that teenage pregnancy is on the rise for the first time in 14 years, AIDS among teenagers is also on the rise, and the recent NYC Health Department's Teen Safety Report stated that teenage dating violence has risen by 40 % since 1999. One out of 10 New York Teens have experienced physical violence at the hands of a partner.

It certainly seems that our preteens and teenagers are in crisis, and it is up to us to help them. One of the most important steps in helping these children process and navigate through this maze of sexual awareness is to start at the beginning with a thorough education about puberty. Puberty is a time when our bodies and minds go through their biggest transformation. When we change from children into adults. Everything changes both physically and mentally. These changes occur in both females and males. It can be a very confusing and scary time for these preteens. It is a time when children are forming their basic body images and when their self-esteem takes its biggest hit.

During this time (ages 8-12) children worry a lot about whether they are "normal" and they want to "fit in", but kids aren't being taught that everyone develops differently. So they end up feeling weird, inadequate and different.

The reality is that no one is talking to or teaching our children about puberty. It's the forgotten lesson. These classes were the first to go during budget cuts, because there isn't a test score. Even though schools are talking about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, most schools fail when it comes to their students' knowledge about their own changing bodies. How are these children to understand and adhere to "safe sex" when most of them don't know what an ovary is? It's like putting the cart before the horse, and it just makes it more confusing for the child. No one is explaining to them that the urges they are feeling are all part of puberty and are normal. One young woman I spoke to in a school in Queens told me that when she was 13, all she wanted to do was to have sex. With no direction or information to guide her, that was exactly what she did, and she thought she was a freak. Of course, she became pregnant and had a child. Now that she is older she realizes it was part of puberty. But back then she was ashamed. She is now trying to talk to her own preteen daughter in the hope that she will avoid what happened to her.

"Teaching about sexuality encourages students to develop a coherent set of personal values based upon respecting themselves and others. Students who understand and value themselves and others are better equipped to develop meaningful and positive relationships." Adapted from Sue Williams, FA Health, 2003, State of New South Wales.

Since starting my company, I'm All Girls, Inc (and Boys Too!), I've called on many schools both private and public, and conducted puberty work shops in schools throughout the New York City area. It is astounding how little most kids know about their changing bodies and the amount of misinformation they have ingested. This is why I can't stress enough how important it is for parents of preteens and teens to start talking to their children about puberty. Right now. Our children need the reassurance that this knowledge can bring them. It also helps build a relationship with your child that will continue into adulthood. According to Lynda Madaras, author of "The What's Happening to My Body" book for girls and boys: "Parents need to realize what a powerful bond they can forge with their children if they will 'be there' for them during puberty - not to mention how well the ensuring trust and respect will serve all concerned in later years when they are faced with making decisions about sex."

As a parent of two girls ages 10 and 13 I know how hard it is to start the conversation. Here are some of the tips we offer parents during our "Puberty Prep" workshop"

"Bit n' Pieces" is better than a whole bite. Don't overwhelm your kids with information.

Anywhere is perfect, nowhere is not. These conversations can start anywhere: doing dishes, in the car on the way to practice, etc. It doesn't matter where you talk to your child as long as you are talking.

Use your own personal experiences and share how it felt when you were a teenager. Times may have changed, but the emotions are the same. You could start with, "I remember I was so embarrassed when.."

Use your "Period Piece" kit for girls and "All About Me" kit for boys as icebreakers. They are filled with useful, timely information and make a good starting point.

I often think of what Lynda Madaras wrote. 'If you are there for your kid when they are wondering, they will more likely turn to you for advice when they are deciding." So start talking. Make it your number one year's resolution and start today.

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