Brook Education and Wellbeing Specialist, Elyssa Rider, explains why puberty education plays a fundamental role in equipping young people to navigate healthy relationships with themselves and their bodies as well as with others around them.
Puberty education is arguably foundational to most other sex and relationships education topics. It encompasses not only body changes and anatomy, but also feelings of desire and sexual interest. It forms the base on which we can build topics such as consent, healthy relationships and masturbation, which are crucial to learning about sex and relationships in general.
Puberty education makes for a flexible springboard from which to lead into other topics.
For example, discussion of hormonal changes allows us to seamlessly bring in mood and mental health, which is important in teaching young people how to look after themselves intentionally and holistically. When we build an understanding around anatomy and masturbation, we’re able to teach on ‘public and private’, or appropriate and inappropriate settings to masturbate. We can educate on where it’s acceptable or unacceptable for others to touch you, and the circumstances under which this might change. When we discuss desire and newly developed sexual feelings, we are able to broach what it might feel like to be ready for sexual touch and how to keep yourself safe and healthy.
One important reason why we must teach puberty education is because knowing the names of our genitals, e.g. vulva, clitoris and penis, gives clarity around parts of the body that are often referred to with euphemisms. Although some might argue that coded language has its uses when in polite company, or for young children, this actually can lead to confusion. I personally remember referring to my vulva as my ‘front bottom’ for years, and I would often shorten it to ‘bottom’. This, however, is inaccurate and when it comes to disclosing to an adult that a young person is experiencing discomfort, pain or inappropriate touch, being able to correctly name the parts of the body is imperative.
Brook’s preference is to teach puberty in mixed gender groups, as we believe it’s important for all young people to get all the information. It’s really valuable and necessary to understand how other people’s bodies change, even if your own puberty might look different. Young people are likely to know people of other genders through friendships, relationships and as family members, so the information will always be relevant.
Understanding around different people’s bodies reduces stigma and increases empathy.
Crucially, there is also a risk to non-binary, gender expansive and trans students, when we split classes by gender, that they may be placed in the wrong room and this will greatly affect their experience of the education, as well as their mental health. Teaching classes inclusively helps to minimise this risk.
One fear we sometimes hear from parents or professionals working with young people is that if we give young people information around sex and relationships, we may well be ‘putting ideas in their heads’, causing them to ‘lose their innocence’. The intentions behind these concerns are all rooted in admirable care for young people. We all want them to be free from harm. It’s helpful to acknowledge that this is the worry motivating the statements, before we dispel the myths they are based on.
Research shows that young people who were taught healthy sex and relationships education are more likely to wait until they are ready to have their first sexual experience.
They are more likely to be older and less likely to become unintentionally pregnant or contract STIs than their counterparts who were taught abstinence-only education.
Puberty sessions are adaptable and can be made relevant and appropriate for any level of understanding or maturity. At Brook we use a wide range of activities to suit different learning styles, environments or English levels. We also have a range of resources to support professionals working with young people to develop their confidence and skills around teaching puberty, including a free e-learning course.
We recommend that puberty be taught to young people in advance of when they will be experiencing it, so that they feel informed and equipped to be able to anticipate the changes to come.
We recognise how frightening it can be to feel like you don’t understand what is happening to your body – many of us will have heard stories of young people unknowingly starting their periods and fearing they were wounded! We want to make sure that young people have all the information that is helpful and relevant to them, in order to reduce stigma and shame. We believe that by equipping young people with this information, they will be better placed to navigate their health and bodies going forward.