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Provide Enough Guidance, But Not Too Much

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

It is often difficult for parents to decide just how much direct help and guidance to provide. Sometimes children need their parents to directly suggest an idea or strategy that can help them deal with an uncomfortable or difficult circumstance. At other times, caregivers need to step back and allow their child to work out their own solution to a new or difficult situation. Providing direct guidance is best when children are completely at a loss for how to proceed. Providing a more indirect "you can do it, I have confidence in you" message is best when children know what they need to accomplish but not exactly how to do it. This kind of "hands-off" approach can help build the youth's capacity and confidence in their own ability to resolve similar situations in the future. There is no formula we know of guaranteed to tell parents exactly when either approach will be best. Instead, parents need to trust their instincts to help them make their best decision.

mother and daughter talkingWhen parents find themselves feeling uncertain about how to help their child, it can often be helpful to be honest with the child about their own uncertainty about how to best support them. Sometimes a simple statement such as, "I could tell you how I would solve this problem, but I'm not sure if that is the best way to help you" can build a child's trust. The child may even surprise their parents by telling them exactly what would be most helpful for the parents to do in that particular circumstance.

What Do I Say To My Child About Puberty?

Pubescent children will generally be in the best position to understand what is happening to them and to make informed decisions about how they will react when they have learned the following information:

1) what will happen as their bodies change,
2) how to properly care for their bodies,
3) how reproduction works (how babies are made),
4) how to make healthy and wise sexual decisions,
5) how to cope with sexual feelings and attraction, and
6) how to avoid unwanted consequences of sexual activity such as pregnancy and disease.

We think it important that parents teach their children about the ways that their bodies will change during puberty before these changes begin. Children who don't know to expect puberty-related bodily changes may conclude that they are sick, dying, or are somehow strangely mutating when puberty-related changes start.

Equally important, we suggest, is the tone in which information about puberty is conveyed to children. Some adults are ambivalent about the realities of being sexually mature which can include unplanned for children, monthly menstruation and the potential for difficult to treat illness. However, emphasizing the downsides of sexual maturity to children is not a particularly useful thing to offer them. We suggest that a matter-of-fact tone, neither overly negative nor overly positive, is best as it provides children with the information they need without emotional baggage which will prevent them from coming to their own conclusions.

A constructive communication might take the following form:

"Beth, I've noticed that you're body has started to change like we talked about. Whenever you feel you want to, we can go have a girls' day, get some lunch, and do some bra shopping."

In contrast, a more biased way of communicating similar information is probably less helpful:

"Oh Beth, welcome to the women's curse: cramping and bleeding every month - sorry kiddo!"