Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

I love teaching sixth graders! They’re smart and fresh and eager to learn. Some are able to speak about sexual health at home; I am grateful for their families. Most have no trusted adult with whom to seek answers to their questions. Many have online access, which often means they need someone to correct misinformation. A few have actual sexual experience; most do not and are confused. I started the Teen Outreach in 1988. The questions I received then from high school juniors and seniors are now common questions in middle school. Curiosity doesn’t mean experience. Be open to young people and respond to their questions with honesty and respect. Here are a few sixth grade questions:

Q. Is it OK to think about sex? Like, I don’t really want to do it, but I look at other kids in school and sometimes I feel all weird and stuff. Is it also OK to be embarrassed talking about it? But I really want answers! I want to talk with my mom but I’m nervous. How do I bring it up? What do I say? What if she thinks I’m having sex? I’m not.

Mary Jo’s response: Yes, it’s OK to think about sex. Most people in puberty find themselves noticing others in a different way. It’s OK to think other people are attractive. It’s OK to have a crush on someone. It’s also OK if you don’t think about sex or notice other people’s attractiveness. Everyone develops differently.

Feeling weird might mean you’re going through puberty. Puberty is a time when children’s bodies slowly develop into adult bodies. There are physical changes like periods and sperm development, and emotional changes like moodiness and self-doubt. Yes, it is OK to feel embarrassed talking about sex but also really want answers to questions.

Talking with a trusted adult is wonderful. Parents can help a young person sort out feelings and ease confusion. Remember, all adults went through puberty, too!

A good way to start a conversation with your mom might be leaving her a note. Not long ago, a parent called me because her sixth grader left this note beside her bed: “Sex. I want to know. Help!?” Most young people aren’t quite that direct, however. You could show her this column and ask, “Can we talk?” You could simply ask a question or tell her you want her guidance. It’s usually easier if you speak with her alone, without younger siblings.

Be clear about your sexual health. Tell her you don’t have any sexual experiences, but you want to be able to come to her as you grow older. Be honest. Be respectful. Most parents are happy their children want to connect. Remember, there are other trusted adults in your family. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, godparents, and even older cousins can help. You’re not alone and your curiosity is perfectly OK.

Peer Educator response: One of the best things about being a peer educator is our ability to answer questions. We often are a trusted person to our younger siblings. Yep, almost everyone your age does think about sex and many people are embarrassed. It’s OK to talk about sex. Try to be brave and start the conversation!

Q. What if a person doesn’t start puberty? My best friend is a guy and he worries because he’s shorter and weaker than the other guys. He can’t shave yet. I’m worried because I didn’t start my period and my chest is flat.

Mary Jo’s response: Everyone starts puberty. All bodies change at their own pace, in their own time.

Studies show the most challenging puberty growth is a late-developing male like your friend. He may look around and feel as if his body is childlike while others in his class look more and more like adults. It takes time, but bodies all change. Focusing on activities like sports, art, band, classes, music or family time will help a young person think about today. Try to avoid worrying about the future when changes aren’t in your control.

Your fears about your body are pretty typical as well. Most periods begin when a person is 10 to 15 years old; the average first period happens at 12. Breast development usually starts before a period begins; typically a period will start 18 months to two years after breasts begin growing. Another sign of a future first period is vaginal discharge about six months before the period. Vaginal discharge is usually clear – kind of like mucous – and might be seen on underwear.

Puberty can be frustrating, exciting and confusing. It’s OK. You’ll get there.

Peer Educator response: Be patient. It’s hard to trust your body but it all works out.

Q.Why does puberty happen anyway?

Mary Jo’s response: Puberty is about change. Although it may be embarrassing or make a person feel weird or uncomfortable, growing up is part of life. As bodies change, they become ready for adult activities like parenting. Without periods or sperm development, people couldn’t reproduce.

I’ve often wished puberty would be in our control. Maybe periods could begin when a person wanted to be a parent, or we could program our bodies to be the height and size we wished. In reality, puberty is a time to learn to love our bodies, develop positive body image and self-confidence, and connect with trusted adults who can guide us as we grow. Emotionally, you and your friends may face relationship challenges. Remember – you are worthy. Friendship changes now will help you create healthy relationships as you grow older.

Good luck! We’re resuming sixth- and seventh-grade night at our Common Ground Teen Center in August. I’ll post dates in this column. You’ll be surprised how many young people feel exactly as you do.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at podmj@healthyteens.com.

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