Educating Eve Pt 1: Tips on talking to your child about her body

Who is your child’s teacher about health issues? The answer might surprise you. It’s YOU.

Parents and carers are an important source of learning about gynaecological health and body knowledge. Where do babies come from is a pretty normal question for a five year old and ‘what’s this called?’ (pointing towards the groin area) is a question for children as young as two. Being able to answer these questions honestly, openly and with timely information is really important – and will help your daughter know her body, understand what’s ‘normal’ for her and, as she grows up, spot when something isn’t and when she needs to seek medical advice.

Top tips

  1. Avoiding euphemisms, using proper language, not passing on embarrassment or taboos starts with ‘teachable’ moments- Have a think and a discussion in advance with your partner and the other people who will be closely involved in your child’s life – from the earliest times: who will be changing their nappy? Who will be helping with toilet training? Who will be helping with bath times? Who will be reading books and watching TV with them? These are all natural and brilliant opportunities to start modelling the language and open communications you want to pass on to your child about how the body works.
  1. Find out more about the reproductive anatomy- Are there any gaps in your own knowledge about reproductive health and anatomy? There’s nothing wrong with finding out more and asking questions of expert sources. We know that adults don’t feel confident about this. We’d recommend you go to the sex education forum to find out more.
  1. Be guided by your child- There is no single ‘appropriate age’ for this discussion. The key is that children gain knowledge in a timely way. When it’s right for them, when they show interest and curiosity or ask questions. Drip feeding information to your children when it’s relevant to your chats or activities will help build up the information slowly rather than one big ‘the chat’ moment.
  1. Learning about something before you experience it makes it less scary- Evidence shows that you should learn about something before you experience it to reduce fear around it. This means we should make sure that we’re giving children information about periods, vaccination and screening in timely ways. What’s also important is to revisit issues in more depth at a number of points so that you build understanding of an issue. You don’t have to jump straight to telling an 8 year old about all aspects of menstrual health – you can introduce the subject of periods and how bodies change as you grow up and go through puberty.
  1. Set a good example yourself- Be as open and comfortable as you can when you’re having this conversation with your child. The more normal and every day the conversation feels – and the more confident you are in using words that at one time may have made you embarrassed or uncomfortable – you’ll be modelling good health behaviours and knowledge.
  1. Don’t leave it up to the school and Sex, Relationships and Health Education- The evidence is very strong that with health education, families and carers play a crucial role. Initiating an open dialogue with your child about their body, that they need to look after it and understand how it works is really important and needs to be a comfortable conversation – it’s NOT about sex, it’s about their health and wellbeing. It’s also not just about puberty – what’s essential is that children understand that the body changes as they grow up. Taking a life-cycle approach and providing appropriate information that includes periods, screening, vaccination, and menopause is vital.
  1. Mind your (body) language- Tone of voice, speed and choice of words, body language signals, facial expressions and eye contact (or lack of it!) are important when you start having these conversations. We know from the conversations that we have through our Ask Eve nurse service, that people of all ages value warmth and openness in communications around their bodies and this needs to start with those first conversations about what their genitalia are called.
  1. It’s NOT ‘different for girls’- Gender differences in parent-child communications about sex and relationships are generally noted in research. The dominant pattern is that mothers communicate with their children on these issues more than fathers, and that same sex communication (mother-daughter and father-son) is most common. It’s important that parents / carers have agreed how they want to approach communications around body and health issues and give the same messages – and don’t pass on any taboos.
  1. Respecting cultures and communities- This is part of the conversation you need to have in advance. What are the religious, community or cultural issues that you need to consider around this? How can you convey accurate information about female health and anatomy that will equip your daughter for the future?
  1. Don’t scare children about cancer, tell them about prevention- Have open conversations with children which enable them to learn to know their bodies, understand their anatomy and spot when something might be a cause for concern. This is about giving children knowledge so that they can keep themselves healthy. If you’re a family who have been affected by one the gynaecological cancers, don’t shy away from talking about this.

You don’t need to be a doctor or a scientist – YOU’RE the expert

NEVER be embarrassed about what you don’t know! We’ve produced a guide for adults to enable them to have better conversations around gynae health with each other and with their older relatives and friends. See Educating Eve Part 2.