Dear Your Teen,
This is embarrassing to share and a twist on the average “the birds and the bees talk” but I don’t know what to do.
I have a 10-year-old daughter who will be starting middle school next year. I’d noticed a while back that a—well, let’s call it an intimate toy—had gone missing from my underwear drawer. I looked all over for it and couldn’t find it, so I replaced it. Then a part for it went missing.
While I was cleaning my daughter’s room yesterday, I noticed she was hovering around me and watching my every move. She insisted that I not touch her stuffed monkey, who was perched in her stuffed animal hammock. When she was away for a moment, I looked, and my toy with the missing piece was sitting under her monkey.
Here is my dilemma: I feel she should get in trouble for taking things that are not hers, but I also don’t want to lose her trust or make her feel like she can’t come talk to me about things. I also am uncomfortable about talking about this with her because it’s embarrassing. My mom never talked to me about anything sexual. I have no idea how to even bring this up, much less talk about it to her. I’m not even sure if my daughter used my toy.
She had the birds and bees talk this year in school, and her father and I tried to explain it a little bit before she went through the class, but that went over like a lead balloon. I think this class may have stirred her curiosity. She is also going through changes with her body.
Please, if you could give any advice on how to approach the topic and both the sexual aspect and the stealing aspect of this situation I would greatly appreciate it.
EXPERT | Sari Cooper, LCSW
Whew! We understand why you’re feeling puzzled. This is a tricky one, so we consulted certified sex therapist and educator Sari Cooper for her advice on an updated version of the birds and the bees talk. With her help, we’ve pulled together some tips on how to approach your daughter:
The Birds and the Bees Talk
Know you’re not alone.
Cooper points out that parents are generally shy, embarrassed, or downright tongue-tied when it comes to discussing sexuality with their kids. Most of our parents never had candid “the birds and the bees talk” type conversations about sex with us, but you have an opportunity to change the cycle. You can model a different kind of communication that will last her a lifetime.
You know your daughter found mom’s toy. Does she know the purpose of the toy, or is she just embarrassed about taking something that wasn’t hers? Does she know it’s a sexual item, but doesn’t really know how it’s used? Your daughter’s curiosity (and possible use of the toy) could be a natural outcome of her puberty and hormonal development. Cooper says, “I would look at her taking your toys much in the same way as you might have taken a book on sex from your parents’ book shelves. In other words, a non-verbal communication that she’s interested in learning more about sexuality and her own body.”
Show her the toy and gently say, “I found this in your stuffed animal hammock. Was this something you were curious about?” Keep the conversation flowing from here.
Cooper says that although it sounds like she’s an early developer and curious about her body, use this opportunity to check with your daughter that she has not had any experiences which were unhealthy “boundary crossings,” meaning any behaviors that are non-consensual that make a person feel threatened, uncomfortable or “icky,” to use kid language.
Girls tend to feel more embarrassment than boys about masturbation, as our culture tends to normalize it only for boys. When a mom models positive regard around sexuality, Cooper says, her daughter will also feel better about herself going forward.
Punishing her for taking your toys might have a negative and potentially shaming impact. She (probably) knows that you have your own masturbatory practice; she is non-verbally (perhaps unconsciously) asking for more guidance. You can remind her not to take things without permission, but consider this a clumsy invitation to talk rather than an ordinary theft.
Most of all, this is an opportunity to let your daughter know you can be trusted to protect, guide, and teach her, even if you and she feel awkward at times. Let her know she can come to you about anything, and if you don’t know the answer, you’ll help her find it.
Let her know that exploring her body is a normal part of growing up. Clarify what your values and expectations are regarding exploring sexual behaviors with partners.
Let her know that when you were growing up, you had lots of questions that you weren’t able to ask your mom, but you’re working on being more of an ask-able mom for her sake. Consider this the first of many growing-up “the birds and the bees talk” type conversations with your daughter. And, we promise, they won’t all be this awkward. Good luck!