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Facing the facts of life

| Monday, Dec. 11, 2006

Discussing the facts of life with children can be challenging. To help parents and guardians talk with their daughters about puberty, sex and other sensitive topics, both Susan Patula and Dr. Dwayne Shuhart recommend "The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls" (American Girl Library, paperback, $9.95).

Created for girls ages 8 and older, the book discusses puberty and highlights topics such as hair care, proper hygiene, healthy eating and menstruation. It's available at many bookstores and through online booksellers.

"It's a very good source of information that a mom and daughter can read together," Patula said.

Have you heard The Question yet?

You know the one -- the query that comes from the back seat when you least expect it, maybe during your drive home from soccer practice. The one you thought you were years away from hearing. The one you always assumed you'd be ready for -- but now it's got you tongue-tied.

"Where do babies come from?"

When the question is posed by a very young child, it's easy to offer a short, simple explanation of the biological basics. But when it comes from an older child -- one entering the pre-teen years -- more information is in order.

Children approaching adolescence are curious, and concerned, about their changing bodies. They're not always sure what's going on or whether the changes are normal.

And, like their parents, they're often uncomfortable raising such an intensely personal topic.

So, if you're lucky, they ask The Question.

But if they don't -- well, then it's up to Mom or Dad to find a way to start the conversation.

The changes that come with adolescence need to be addressed, said Susan Patula, a childbirth educator at Excela Health Westmoreland and Frick hospitals. She also teaches a class about "the facts of life" for girls ages 8 to 13.

"Many parents want to postpone this talk. But I think these days, girls are maturing a little earlier," Patula said. "I really think it's important that parents are tuned into their child and notice the changes that are occurring."

Patula's class is designed to cover topics such as growing up, puberty and the physical and emotional changes that will take place. She discusses the importance of eating right, promotes good skin care and explains how to use feminine protection products.

"I do not talk about sex at all, but I do refer to their physical body, show them body parts, and let them know that puberty is a way of growing up and is a way to have a baby," Patula said.

Dr. Dwayne Shuhart, a pediatrician with Blairsville Pediatrics, said that children don't always ask questions, so it's especially important to watch for signs of puberty and then talk about what is going on.

Shuhart, who used to teach a "facts of life" class for boys, is familiar with discussing the topic with adolescents. He said it's been his experience that his young female patients would rather discuss puberty with the women physician assistants in his office; he talks more often with young male patients.

"I usually talk to them when they come in for their sixth-grade physical or a physical for sports," Shuhart said. "I'll notice that puberty is starting. That's when it's important to talk to them about acne that may show up, (about how) their hair may get oily, they may have body odor and their voice is going to change.

"We talk about how clumsy they are going to get. And I try to tell them to have a good sense of humor about it. I tell them that if they are walking down the street and they trip over a line in the sidewalk, just laugh about it."

Shuhart also recommends attending a class to atart a dialogue between the child and a parent or guardian.

"I think the important part is that they need to understand the changes are normal," he said.

"The school system does some of it, but all kids have questions and concerns. Class is a good way to get those questions answered in a non-threatening, safe way. You don't have to ask questions if you don't want to."

Attending a class is also beneficial for the parent or guardian, Patula said.

"Some schools show 'the movie' for the girls in fourth grade and the boys in fifth grade, but some schools don't have a program" that discusses adolescence, she said.

"And sometimes Mom feels that the medical professional can give accurate advice. She also can't see the film in the school with the child, so they aren't working together to open the doors of communication."

Patula, of Greensburg, knows what it's like to be on the other side of the podium. A mom herself, she's already talked to her son Gregory, 11, about the changes he'll be facing as he grows older.

And there are more talks ahead. She and her husband, Greg, have three other children: Vincent, 8; Isabella, 6; and Rachel, 2.

"I was nervous. He was 10 when I talked to him," Patula said. "The Talk came from Mom. We just talked about the physical changes that were occurring.

"I just want to present an atmosphere to them that allows them to feel free to ask questions. I have four children, so I figure by the time it's time to talk to my 2-year-old, I should be really good at it."

Through teaching the class, Patula said, she's learned that many young girls are afraid of starting their menstrual cycles while they're in school or another public place.

"So I give them homework. I have them go home and find Mom's stash of tampons and sanitary pads so that they know where they are," she said.

"I have them make up a little bag to keep in their backpack, so they are always ready. They can feel more comfortable knowing they are prepared, and that is a big concern for young girls."

Another important topic is privacy and self-protection.

"Because girls start developing at a younger age, we talk to them about being aware that if boys find those new parts attractive, it does not give them the right to touch or grab them," Shuhart said. "We talk to them about being in charge of their bodies, and being the one who decides who touches them and if they touch them."

Patula agrees that any talk involving the body should include some thoughts on keeping private parts private. She also advises parents to call body parts by their correct, anatomical names.

"Call it what it is from the beginning, and that goes for both male and female body parts," Shuhart agreed. "Kids have to be comfortable in order for them to have the openness with parents to talk about these things. It shows that you are more comfortable with it if you call things by their right names."

Patula hopes that her class can serve as a stepping stone to more in-depth topics such as sex and dating. She not only seeks to inform pre-teens about their changing bodies, she also wants to give them some peace of mind, knowing they will experience something that everyone is a part of.

"Mostly, it is just important that your child knows that they need to have fun growing up. They don't need to get stressed out about what's going to happen," Patula said.

"They don't need to worry about growing up, because everyone does it."

For more information about Excela Health's classes on the facts of life, call 877-771-1234.

Additional Information:

Say what?

Some general guidelines for discussing the facts of life with children of different ages:

Ages 3-5

Use the correct, anatomical terms to teach your child the name for body parts. Use those names just as you would 'eyes' or 'ears.' Give short, simple answers to specific questions. For instance, if a child asks where babies come from, say, 'A baby grows in a special place inside its mother.'

Ages 5-7

Be aware that children hear about sexual topics at school, in news reports and from friends. Be prepared to answer questions simply but accurately. Let children know that no question is off-limits or 'too embarrassing' to ask.

Ages 8-12

Give pre-teens information about the physical and emotional changes that come with puberty. Begin to discuss privacy, self-protection and your family's values. Stress that adolescence is a normal part of growing up.

Ages 13-18

Help teens address questions about sexuality, attitudes and behavior. Reassure them that their feelings are normal. Remain open to discussions of sensitive topics while respecting a teen's growing need for privacy.

Source: Planned Parenthood, www.plannedparenthood.org

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