The Conversations You Should Be Having With Your Kids About Puberty and 'Turning Red'

Disney+’s Turning Red has some parents fretting about giving their kids ‘the talk.’ But when it comes to kids and puberty, experts say parents should talk to their kids early and often.  

Turning Red
Photo: Disney+ | Pixar

About a week before Turning Red premiered on Disney+, my kid asked if we could watch it together. The night it premiered. Like, make it a thing.

We frequently binge-watch old-school TV shows and movies as a way to share and connect, so it wasn't really out of character. While I thought we'd chat about the film's frank and funny discussion of puberty and the wave of physical and emotional changes that come with it, she was more interested in the humor, the adventure, and the music.

But when she asked me who my favorite character was, I instantly had an answer: Sandra Oh's lovingly overbearing, oh-so-conflicted Asian mama, Ming. Because when it comes to puberty, she's not only the mom I wanted—open, overprepared, concerned—she's the mom I want to be, in many ways. And in others? Not so much. But I totally get where she's coming from.

My parents never gave me "the sex talk." This says a lot because they were both pediatricians. But like many Asian—and non-Asian—parents, they never discussed things like puberty, sexuality, or mental health with me as a kid.

And it's clear from the online controversies and conversations that continue to swirl about Turning Red that not much has changed in the last few decades. Some parents say the film's discussion about puberty, periods, and the teens' newfound interest in exploring sexuality caught them off guard, and they were unprepared to have those conversations with their kids. Others went as far as accusing the film of sexualizing the kids, especially with its portrayal of Mei's interest in boy bands and fan fiction. But like many teens—my former self included (my favorite New Kid was Joey)—Mei and her crew connect and explore their feelings through pop culture in a very safe and healthy way. That's something that should be applauded.

By the time I was a preteen, I knew enough (or so I thought) about puberty and the changes it brings, through sex ed classes at school and conversations with my friends. But I didn't really get it, of course. Who does at that age? Or any age, for that matter.

So I chose to take the opposite tack with my daughter as she ventured reluctantly into puberty. I bought her a stack of carefully vetted, puberty-positive books, I stocked up on pads, got period panties (a lifesaver for my little water baby during summer swim season), and I opened the door to discussion early and often.

Hopefully, I'm not the only one. But conversations about puberty and the tidal wave of changes—both physical and emotional—that come with it can be fraught, both for parents and children. Here's some guidance on how you can normalize talking to your kids about puberty early and often.

The Onset of Puberty Has Shifted

While parents have publicly fretted about Turning Red prompting questions about periods, sexuality, and emotional shifts from their kids, the film depicts a perfectly normal and typical experience with puberty—well, aside from the actual red panda thing.

"Let's take the shame out of it," says Cara Natterson, M.D., author of the bestselling Care and Keeping of You book series and co-host of The Puberty Podcast. "I was pretty bummed out about the comments that suggested you needed a trigger warning about puberty. For any parents who are curious: 100 percent of your children are going to go through puberty. Learning about it, teaching them about it, having those necessary conversations is critical."

These days, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the onset of puberty can start as early as age eight. That means if you're waiting until your kid is tween or teen, you're already too late—and that yes, a kids' movie should tackle a topic like puberty, because puberty literally happens to kids.

The Concept of the Talk Is Outdated

In the "old days," many parents thought a single "birds and bees" chat meant they'd done their due diligence as parents. But we all know how well that turned out. That's why it's critical to start conversations about puberty early and have them often.

"If it's not Turning Red, it will be something else soon," says Megan Michelson, director of The Birds And Bees, a podcast that also offers a crash course on talking to your kids about puberty. "As parents, we all want the authority and privilege of explaining the changes in adolescence and sex education. We want parents to start talking and keep talking." She recommends an approach that's "frequent and frank," but notes that "there is so much power in the first impression! Be proactive, not reactive. At the same time, we all know this practice requires a clear vision, direction, and a goal in mind."

Sitting down for a big, serious, face-to-face conversation can be intimidating, for both parents and kids. "'The talk' is outdated—and it was when we all heard it!" says Michelson, who's also a former middle school educator. "And the questions do come sooner than you think. You can start as young as three or four years old when a child pulls a tampon out of a purse and asks, 'What is this?' Rather than grab it and tell them to not touch things like that, simply say, 'Oh sweetheart, this is a tampon. [Some parents] bleed once a month, and it's called a period. A tampon helps keep things clean.' While this might be your first conversation about periods, it should not be your last."

As a pediatrician and a parent, Dr. Natterson recommends parents talk to their children about puberty and the changes that come with it frequently and frankly. "My mantra is talk early, talk often, talk about everything. But not all at once," she says. "We can't just sit down and information dump on our kids because that's a lecture, and it's too much. Every day offers teachable moments: You might be walking down the street and see a bus drive by with a completely inappropriate ad on the side of the bus. You might be watching a show together and press pause. You might hear a story about something that happened at school or on the field. It's never too early to start these conversations."

Explain Things in Terms Your Kid Will Understand

Different ages and stages will require different frameworks for approaching discussions about puberty, sexuality, identity, and consent.

Michelson says speaking from a place of authority is important—and so, too, is ensuring kids that what they're experiencing is something everyone goes through. "Parents should be the experts and a trusted source for their children. For example, start by addressing body parts with anatomical names," Michelson says. "This can begin as young as bathing your toddler in the tub or potty training. As they grow, find small, age-appropriate ways to address body boundaries. Normalizing periods before they happen helps them realize that changes like this are normal and to be expected. These matter-of-fact conversations create a shame-free place for education and communication."

Books, videos, and classes like Michelson's Birds and Bees workshop can help parents learn to navigate these conversations with grace and authority. "We want parents to feel empowered to break sex education down into multiple, age-appropriate conversations that begin at a young age," Michelson says. "A drip-by-drip method, so to speak. By answering our kids' questions in an age-appropriate way, we also have the power to normalize the changes that come along with adolescence, too. 'Where do babies come from?' 'How is that baby getting out of there?' 'What's a tampon?' are all normal questions for curious kids to ask and we want parents to feel equipped and empowered to answer them in a way that fosters confidence and open discussions."

That may sound complicated, but it's how caregivers educate children about the world around them every day—and it works just as well here. "For example, when discussing consent, you'd take a different approach with a toddler, talking about it in simpler terms, like sharing and not sharing, teaching what's appropriate. Like 'I'm just making sure it's okay with that person that I shared this toy they're playing with,'" Dr. Natterson explains. "Then you extend that concept out many, many years to explain it in terms of bodily autonomy to an older child. But the very core values of that concept are the same, whether you're talking about a toy or whether you're talking about someone's personal physical space. So those types of conversations about nutrition, about respecting your own body, about pleasure, and what feels good."

Starting these conversations early—and having them often—is critical because these days kids are inundated by more information than ever.

"If your kid has a question and you don't want to answer it, they're going to seek out the answer. And they live in a world where they can get an answer," says Dr. Natterson. "As parents and adults who are in the lives of these kids, we are at a crossroads where we have a choice. Either the information can come from us, or we can outsource it. Probably to the Internet or to their 12-year-old friends, and I'm not sure what, which is worse, right?"

Keep the Conversation Going

Natterson reminds parents that the access kids have to information today carries greater risks, too. "Kids who have access to the Internet have access to pornography. It finds them, you know," she says. "So caregivers need to arm kids with really good, healthy information and have those conversations."

While that may sound intimidating, "Sometimes it's as simple as, 'You might see a naked person on the Internet. If that happens, you didn't do anything wrong, but come talk to me because we can talk about what you saw and how you're feeling,'" Dr. Natterson says. "You don't necessarily want to get so far ahead of it that your kid's not ready to have the conversation. But you do want to be baby-stepping your way into these conversations, and by saying to a child, 'It's not your fault. I'm not going to be mad,' you are leaving the door open should something come up."

And if at first you don't succeed? Definitely try again.

It's okay if it feels awkward. "Kids are supposed to be curious and ask questions—it's part of healthy child development," Michelson says. "Just because it's normal doesn't mean it's easy to answer them."

In the long run, your relationship with your children will be better for it. "Even when you say something wrong, or it doesn't resonate or it embarrasses your kid," Dr. Natterson says, "having had the conversation is good. When it doesn't land, go back and have it again. And if they haven't heard you maybe you need to listen to them. Maybe we all need a reminder that conversation is two ways, and not just us telling our kids how it is, but that they tell us what life is like for them, what's real for them, and what language they're using."

If anything, that's the real message at the heart of Turning Red. And it's one that many parents need to embrace.

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