"When you realize that the greater your child's ACE score, the more at risk they are for engaging in early sexual behaviors, then this is something you are going to have to deal with. You have to get comfortable talking about this."
Puberty. It’s a time you may be dreading as a parent or caregiver, or maybe you’re currently walking this road with your pre-teen or teenager, and you need help! It doesn’t have to be scary. Our guest, Dr. Melody Aguayo, offers a wealth of knowledge that will help you navigate this stage of life. The changes that accompany this stage of life for our children with trauma histories can bring more challenges than other children face. There are significant differences that we, as parents, need to understand so we can support and educate our children well. Awareness is the first step, so let’s dive in!
Connect with your child often and with openness as they navigate puberty.
During puberty, children who have experienced trauma often see sexual relationships as an easy way to gain that connection. Because their brains are wired for protection instead of connection, they often skip over the natural order of relationships. A child may not have received consistent connection with their caretaker, or the child may push this type of connection away and pursue peer friendships instead. The challenge with this, though, is that children who have experienced trauma often are at a very different stage developmentally and experientially than their actual age would denote. Because of this, peers may respond with a lack of grace or forgiveness. If they don’t receive peer connection, they may move onto a chaotic romantic relationship. What children want in all of this is a satisfying connection, but their relationships end up feeling less than fulfilling. Following the natural order of relationships helps to create a firm launching point for other relationships, and that begins with the caregiver.
Be a problem solver with your child.
Even though your child may be physically going through puberty, he may not be ready developmentally. This is where education is so important. Teach your child about proper self-care, but do so with sensitivity. For children who struggle with self-regulation or feeling different, affirm that puberty is normal. Breakdown what your child needs to do to care for himself. Give information in manageable bites; go back to what a much younger child would need. If your child is struggling with body odor, for example, add a picture of deodorant to their morning chart if they learn best visually. If your daughter has her first period, buy lots of feminine hygiene products that she can try. Give your children the tools they need to be able to care for themselves well.
Make conversations about sex normal.
In today’s culture, children are inundated with more information about sex than they can handle. We have to be able to organize the information for them and help them process it. You can’t avoid the hard conversations; the basics are not enough anymore. Children need more education because they are receiving more information. Don’t assume that they know what something is just because they’ve seen it or heard about it. Often children use words without a true understanding of what those words mean. Address the topic when it comes up, but also be intentional to bring the conversation up to your children. Explain what sex is—not just the act, but also that affection and connection are part of sex. Let your children know that it’s safe to talk to you about this. And if you don’t feel comfortable talking to them about sex right now, practice. Be open and intentional with your conversations. Talk with your spouse, or a friend if you are single, so that you can talk to your children.
Address lack of discretion through education and structure.
Even though your child may not be at the same developmental age as their peers, outline what is appropriate behavior for their physical age. Often children who experience trauma lack discretion. For example, when peers know to stop talking about something inappropriate when an adult comes around, a child who has experienced trauma may not; they will continue to talk. They aren’t aware that it’s something to hide. This can be good, but it can also get them into trouble. Think through ways you can help your child if they do struggle with discretion. For example, if they don’t understand why particular conversations are inappropriate, having unguarded access to a phone might not be helpful. If they are going to have a phone, build in structure. What other parents allow may not be right for your child. Do what will help your child as you continue to educate over and over.
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