First…apologies for having not updated recently. I had a slew of computer problems which created technical difficulties in accessing this space. So while I have new stuff to share here, I had to wait until I could get back in here to write.
Second…I’m back now! So be on the lookout for more writings. I’m working toward making WSE a non-profit organization. There is much paperwork to be done, and IRS forms to fill out, and I know it will be a lengthy process…but I’m very excited to make that announcement here. Working to connect and build in a larger way.
For today’s topic, I would like to address the matter of working with teenage daughters. This is not a topic I address blithely, or from strictly the position of a researcher who has interviewed parents of female teens…but as a parent of a teenage daughter myself. I’ve pointed out before and I’ll say it again: the number one tool to working with teenagers (sons and daughters, really) is open, honest communication.
While open, honest communication should, ideally, begin in early childhood, I’ve found that many parents don’t discuss the topic of sex/sexuality/genital health from early childhood (part of what I’m working to address as a goal of WSE overall). So while I’m working toward building connections with parents, pediatricians, and gynecologists to create working pathways and education for parents of younger children, there are millions of parents who have teenagers now who may not know how to approach the topics with a daughter who is already in the teenage years.
My first suggestion (and it is just a suggestion, of course) is: RELAX. By the time your daughter (or son) is a teenager, chances are, they already know more than you think they do…and that’s okay. Really. You may want to take into account the personality of your teenager, and know up front that even if they look at you like you have three heads, or if they “cop an attitude” (like what do you know?!), that’s okay, too…believe me, they’re listening. Especially on the topic of sexuality.
My second suggestion: Get rid of any/all cutesie-poo language that hinders communication. Learn your terminology. Don’t flinch away from words like “vagina,” “vulva,” “labia,” and “clitoris.” These aren’t dirty words. If you treat them as dirty or shameful words, your kids will (and do) pick up on that and will treat them as such. These words are simply parts of an entire spectrum of anatomically correct terminology. That’s it. If you don’t flinch when asking about other parts of the body, whether the ears, eyes, nose, throat, hands, knees (you get the idea), then there isn’t anything to flinch over when discussing genitalia. The discomfort began with you, as a parent. That, too, is not any sort of finger-pointing at parents…there is NO blame here. As parents, we were taught to treat genitalia as something that is shameful, rather than simply something that should be treated as private. By the time your children are teenagers, much of that association has been established, but it can be undone and relearned in a less “squicky” way. And, for the purposes of parent-child communication, it begins with us…the parents. If we, as parents, can unlearn the squick factor we were taught, we can also pass that on to our kids. I know it can be done, because I’ve managed to do it.
My third suggestion…and this IS for parents of teenage daughters: Do not be afraid of the gynecologist. We become accustomed to going to the pediatrician with our children, and ignore that pediatric treatment stops at 18 — but there are specialized areas that while a pediatrician IS trained (medically) to attend, those areas are better attended by a gynecologist. I suspect, based on parent interview comments, that parents have some difficulty with this idea because of the notion that their daughters will always be their “little girls” — and the idea of their little girl becoming a woman is some nebulous distant future thing, following a wedding dress fitting. That notion, however, is harmful to daughters who, because the teen years are a bridge between girlhood and womanhood, need to be able to access medical care that is adequate to their changing needs during that bridging process. Much of the problem isn’t with the medical component…or the daughter — it’s with the parental notion of “little girl until bride” — making nonexistent the idea of being a woman before marriage. That is a parental problem that needs to be directly addressed.
The bridge between girlhood and womanhood begins with menstruation, of course, and ensuring our daughters have all of the information and supplies they require to manage their periods. That is only a small portion of what they require, though. The larger portion of what is needed goes back to the first and second suggestions. RELAX, parents, and don’t shy away from open, direct communication…and learn your terminology. Moms, in particular (because like it or not, Dads have a tougher time with this generally)…you won’t be able to address gynecological needs with your daughter if you have difficulty articulating your own needs. In other words, if you’re uncomfortable saying the word “vagina” when talking about your own, it’s going to be all that much more uncomfortable discussing vaginal/menstrual/gynecological issues with your daughter…and during the teenage years is when she needs to learn how to articulate her own needs. She needs to be able to verbalize what is happening with her while she has the safety net of home in order to be comfortable addressing these matters when she becomes an adult and has to address them with a gynecologist directly.
For today, I’ll stop here…this is a subject I intend to address in greater length and depth later, but I wanted to put these thoughts out there as a starting point.