Emma Pickett is a former Deputy Head and Year 6 teacher who taught sex and relationships education for over a decade before having her own children, now aged 10 and 14. She then embarked on a career change training as a lactation consultant. Emma has supported new families in North London for 10 years and is currently chair of the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers.
Below Emma shares her top 6 tips to help support and inform pubescent girls.
Over to Emma.
Now that Sex and Relationships Education is due to be compulsory in schools from 2020, we might imagine parents have been let off the hook. But it’s more important than ever that we’re prepared to talk about puberty and body changes.
Our girls are growing up with Instagram and Snapchat in their pockets.
They are seeing sponsored celebrity posts, photo-shopped images and face-sculpting make-up several times a day. Even the non-celebrities are using filters to enlarge their eyes, smooth out their skin and change their body shape. How can we help our girls through their puberty years?
Below are a few tips based on the research I did for The Breast Book, my experience as a teacher of Sex and Relationships education and my own experience as a parent.
Be a model. Not Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss. Model being a woman who is self-confident and celebrates what her body can do and talks positively about other women’s bodies. We don’t have to hide our vulnerabilities but if we constantly criticise female bodies, talk about ‘dieting’ rather than healthy eating and describe ourselves as lacking, we are sending some powerful signals.
Be cautious about demonising social media. Yes, it’s a worry that young people are addicted to achieving ‘likes’ and girls who are younger and younger are valuing superficial appearance ahead of deeper thought. But that doesn’t have to mean we see social media as all bad. The reality is that it is here to stay.
It’s our job to empower our daughters to develop their own limits, analyse content in a healthy way and be able to see the way the commercial world aims to push them around. We can’t help them do all that if they sneak a look at Instagram at a friend’s house because we can only see the negative. Some of the best of the 21st century feminism is on social media too.
The actress Jameela Jamil’s ‘I weigh’ Instagram account is all about celebrating what women bring to the world and how we should be ‘measured’ by what really matters, not by kilograms. Be part of their social media journey.
Find ways to communicate that work for you and your child. Not every family will do it in the same way. Some teenagers will express love by sending a gif video of two penguins hugging more comfortably than they would say, ‘I love you’ in real life.
Many conversations happen best in a ‘side to side’ setting: in the car, walking around a shopping centre, walking the dog. Some conversations can happen via email or through a journal that goes backwards and forwards. And if they happen via texts through a locked bedroom door that may not always be a disaster. Communication is happening.
Don’t expect school to give them all the answers. The new curriculum has a lot of gaps: breast development for one thing. Many young girls don’t know how new breasts arrive: that one breast bud may develop before the other, that new breasts can be tender, that nipples may be initially inverted. I’ve spoken to girls who have spent weeks or even months worried that something is horribly wrong.
Get ahead of the curve and have conversations early. A conversation about periods can happen at any age. They don’t have to be timed months before the first period arrives and you’d be lucky to catch that window precisely! The first period is sometimes brown rather than red. Will your daughter be ready for that?
Research what’s changed. The world of sanitary protection has been transformed by new technology and absorbent underwear that can be perfect for early lighter periods. There is even period-friendly swimwear available. Crop tops and bra alternatives are made from newer fabrics and completely different from what we had access to as young women.
Celebrate what bodies can do. Sex education in the new curriculum is a serious topic with some tough subjects to be covered: FGM, forced marriage, the treatment of sexually transmitted infections, alcohol and drugs leading to risky sexual behaviour.
It may be up to us to talk about the positives. Sex is fun and it’s a special way to express love in an intimate relationship. Breasts have a function, it’s not all about breast checks and bra sizes.
Many women struggle to breastfeed after a lifetime of not talking about what breasts are for and how they work. We can help our future grandchildren when we talk about breastfeeding as a normal part of family life.
This won’t be one conversation about the ‘birds and the bees’. It won’t be a week’s or month’s conversation but an ongoing dialogue where you help your daughter grow into a young woman who is confident. And when they don’t feel confident (because no one does all the time), you will be there to offer support.