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.

Q.Dear Mary Jo, it’s been 20 years since you were our “sex lady” and I still feel that you are the only one I can ask certain questions and get an honest answer. I know you get lots of questions every day and understand if you don’t have time to answer, but if you do ...

My 13-year-old will experience her first summer dealing with menstruation. She also has a lot of pubic hair. She is worried that other kids will make fun of her for how “full” her swimsuit bottoms will be and her bikini line hair. I have considered shaving, trimming, and waxing for her, but again, she is only 13. Do you have any suggestions or should I just buy swim shorts this year?

Mary Jo’s response: Ugh. Summer as a 13-year-old in puberty with her first menstruation! I remember that time in my life; I’m guessing I’m not alone. Feeling like I stood out, feeling awkward, feeling just plain strange – your daughter isn’t alone, either. I’m so glad she talks with you!

Kids can be mean. I wish I could say your daughter’s concerns aren’t real, but I fear she will be noticed. If she were mine, I’d let her lead me. The swim shorts are an easy fix, but she needs to approve them. If her anxiety about being different is intense enough, and the use of swim shorts only exacerbates her anxiety because they will also make her stand out and look different, then the idea of sugaring or some other gentle hair removal might help.

Some salons are very sensitive to a client’s age. Your daughter may be open to hair removal – at least a little – if the fear of being mocked is worse than the fear of the removal. Listen to her. The question behind her question is important. Is she asking you to help her with hair removal or is she seeking reassurance that her body is OK? Rapid pubertal growth can be frightening. Secondary sexual characteristics like breast development and body hair can cause embarrassment. She needs your support; reinforce her self-worth. Things will get better.

I’d be honest with her about the procedure. Take her to a salon and let her meet the technician. Have a conversation without doing anything. Help her understand exactly what will happen. She needs to make an informed choice.

This is a great start to connecting during adolescence. You’ll face tough conversations. Starting with respect for her feelings now will set the stage for openness in the future.

I was interested in our peer educator response. I think you’ll find it helpful.

Good luck.

Peer educator response: One of our peer educators shared this story: I remember being 10 in gym class and the boy sitting next to me asked me why my “legs were so hairy?!” I went home and begged my mom to buy me a razor and she finally gave in after me asking 100 times! I don’t think I shaved my pubic hair at that time, but I definitely was shaving my legs and underarms at 10. I think knowing that I could if I wanted to made it less exciting to me. Not that it’s particularly exciting, but it seems that way when you’re young. It’s a milestone, like your first stick of deodorant. It’s 100 percent normal for her to be worried about how kids talk these days. They know so much at a young age.

Q.You might be surprised I’m writing to you, if you remember me. I was one of your students over 25 years ago, and I was – well – let’s say ornery – in class. Here I am asking you for help and knowing you will be kind. My son is 13. I’m trying to raise him to be a good person. My dad and pap raised me to be tough. I got in more fights at his age than anyone else in middle school. I don’t want that for him. My wife and I are doing a good job. He’s kind to his siblings, respectful to others, etc. Great kid. Here’s my worry. His friends are changing. I hear them bragging about girls and sex. I know some are watching porn. My boy talks with me and we connect well. How do I help him navigate the next years?

Mary Jo’s response: I do remember you, but I don’t recall you being a problem in class. My memory self-selects positives!

How wonderful to hear you are parenting with intention! Being a parent is a vital job, and I’m so pleased to hear you and your partner are united. Way to go! You’ve chosen to teach your boy how to be a man without being violent or aggressive. Changing our parenting from the way we were parented takes a great deal of effort and willpower. Your son is fortunate to have you.

Connecting over the next years is vital. I’m sure your foundation with your son will help you both over the next years.

You’re right to be observant. Friends do change, especially in middle school. You’re right about pornography as well. Some studies show first porn viewing to be between 10 and 11 years of age, typically on phones. His friends’ behavior is not his behavior. Please don’t judge your son based on what you hear them say.

It’s important that you have conversations about sex and relationships. Be careful to hear him; be open to his thoughts and needs and feelings. If it feels weird to start a conversation about sex, be honest with him. Try something like, “No one at home was open to talking about sex when I was a kid. I want to be there for you, even if I feel uncomfortable. How do you feel?”

Be cautious and pick your battles. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Share your values while offering your unconditional acceptance and love. You’re his dad, no matter his mistakes – all people stumble and fail. Let him know he can safely talk with you. Encourage and validate his bravery in connecting with you as he grows older. I know many parents who communicate well with their teens throughout adolescence.

You can do this. One step at a time.

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