Remember ‘Dolly Doctor’? We do. It was a column in the now defunct teen magazine Dolly (the magazine was in print for 46 years and sadly closed in 2016), where every question you wanted to ask about bodies and sex, but were too embarrassed, was answered...
Breasts, periods, height and weight, acne, stretch marks, genital changes pubic hair, emerging sexual feelings and experiences – the list goes on. Dr Melissa Kang, a Sydney-based mother of four, was the longest-serving expert behind the column. For 23 years, she answered thousands of letters and gave advice to adolescent girls wondering if they were normal (“I actually think that wondering and worrying about ‘normal’ is actually normal,” she says). Kang, a fifth-generation Malaysian-Chinese Anglo-Australian, is now a practising medical doctor for marginalised young people and has academic roles at the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Sydney. Last year, she co-wrote her first book with Yumi Stynes, Welcome To Your Period, a frank, funny, age-appropriate guide for pre-teens about getting your period.
Here, she shares her insights into everything from adolescent sexuality and sexual health to our children’s mental health and why society isn’t geared towards nurturing the adolescent brain and body development.
Purchase Welcome To Your Period’ here
As Dolly Doctor, what were the biggest issues facing young girls back then and how have these issues changed?
The issues and concerns that adolescent girls wrote to Dolly Doctor about didn’t, in essence, change over 23 years. Predominantly they wanted to know about their changing bodies, feelings, and relationships. Most of the questions I answered were about physical changes of puberty (breasts, periods, height and weight, acne, stretch marks, genital changes including vaginal secretions and pubic hair) and emerging sexual feelings and experiences (feeling sexual attraction, being horny, wondering about sexual identity, with a small percentage asking about sexual and reproductive health care including contraception and STI symptoms). A small number of questions were about mental and physical health issues. What changed over the years was the number concerned about pubic hair removal (evidence I believe of the influence of online porn).
Why are tween/teen girls so unsure if what they’re experiencing is normal – why is there such a lack of communication?
I actually think that wondering and worrying about ‘normal’ is actually normal. Even armed with all the information and communication in the world, adolescents naturally think and see the world differently – and they do, for a time, spend a lot of time wondering if they are the same or different to everybody else. Having said that, some topics seemed to cause more anxiety, particularly vaginal secretions, periods, and early sexual feelings. I think these are taboo topics – although improving over time. Also, while adolescents might learn about puberty, sex, and relationships from parents and school, as well as online, it was the very specific nature of some questions which might have been difficult to find or be taught. Writing to a health professional from a trusted magazine helped personalise the experiences and concerns.
You work in the field of adolescent sexuality – what are the biggest issues you deal with in this field?
Because I am a medical doctor, I tend to directly work with medical issues – so, contraception, STIs, as well as periods and physical concerns about puberty. I also see issues that arise from sexual identity and increasingly gender identity concerns. All of these issues are what I call relational. I always ask about consent, mutual pleasure, communication, experiences of harassment or bullying. Often the relational aspects involve parents or carers, and intergenerational or cross-cultural issues. Adolescent sexuality is part of a broader social and cultural context, and despite being in the 21st century, there are still sanctions and taboos around adolescent female sexuality, gender-based discrimination or abuse, homophobia, and transphobia – all of which I have seen and continue to deal with.
You were born in Sydney and then grew up in Malaysia and returned to Australia in your adolescence – you’ve spoken about this transition being a tough experience – why was that?
The acute transition was tough because I had come from a small town in what was still a developing country where school education was a privilege and kids were expected to be obedient and quiet. Also, the community I grew up in was truly multicultural and even though I was Eurasian, I felt quite at home and spoke three languages. Transitioning to Sydney which seemed like a huge metropolis was exciting, but at school, not everyone listened to teachers, I was teased for my looks and accent for a few years, and most of all, it was extremely nerdy to enjoy studying or be seen as academically smart. Everything I had grown up thinking was ‘cool’ turned out to be the opposite!
“ Even armed with all the information and communication in the world, adolescents naturally think and see the world differently – and they do, for a time, spend a lot of time wondering if they are the same or different to everybody else ”
Your father was orphaned – how do you think that influenced him as a parent?
I’m sure it influenced him profoundly. He was devoted to family and creating a secure sense of place and home. He was always grateful for the opportunities he was given in his young adulthood and gave back to the extended family in Malaysia for the rest of his life. After a few years in Australia, my parents were able to build their own house for our big family of five kids and it meant more to him than I could have appreciated at the time. He had come from ‘nothing’ to the bricks and mortar that could house his own family. Emotionally, his parenting changed with each subsequent child, which I think is common. He was pretty tough on my older brother and me, we were always told how lucky we were and how we had to work hard. He got softer with the younger ones.
What spurred you to co-write the book Welcome To Your Period?
It was a no brainer when Yumi Stynes asked if I’d be interested in co-authoring a book with her about periods. I’d answered so many questions in Dolly Doctor over the years, it was so rewarding to be able to collate something that came directly out of the worries and questions that adolescents had asked over a generation.
Talk us through what happens in terms of identity when children hit adolescence…
There have been important theories developed over the past century or so about adolescence and other stages of life. Identity has always been described as a central ‘task’ of adolescence. It’s a time of changing brainpower, changing emotions, and changing social roles, with the ideal endpoint being a young adult who has a positive and clear sense of who they are and where they fit in the world. So, even if family and parents remain in close proximity, the young adult has new competencies that allow them to make decisions and do things independently. The young adolescent (around 10 – 13) will first experience these changes by looking inward, becoming preoccupied with puberty and wanting more privacy – it might appear as moodiness, but isn’t necessarily. It’s the early phase of figuring out who they are – by getting used to their new bodies and minds. By around mid-high school, friends are really important as a frame of reference. Going out with friends on their own and dating are examples of those more independent roles, it can also involve helping more around the house, taking care of younger children, and so on. There can be some impulsivity and risk-taking which is natural, and healthy up to a point. It’s a time when boundaries and negotiating them with parents is critical – despite protests or resistance, it’s what adolescents need and want. It helps them continue on their journey to adulthood by having regular testing of rules and boundaries, helping them figure out what’s right and wrong, helping them learn to find out what they need. As they approach young adulthood, they have an idea about values (these are there all along but often more clearly understood or articulated), their sexual identity, how to interact in different situations (such as at work, with teachers, at home and with friends).
What advice do you have for parents dealing with adolescence and changing bodies? What are some practical communication tips?
· It’s a dance you have to do – anticipating what’s coming while being guided by what they’re ready for. I do think it’s useful to let your adolescent know that you’re willing and available to talk and to ‘put things on the table’, even if they don’t take you up on it. For example, if you say to your 10 or 11-year-old girl who is in very early puberty ‘happy to talk to you about changes that might happen to your body like pubic hair and vaginal secretions’ – she might go ‘ewwwww’ and run away. But you’ve put it out there, in a non-threatening way, and she will have filed that away for future reference.
· Respect their need for privacy while maintaining interest in them and their lives
· Be informed about adolescent development – there are great resources out there
· Use an indirect approach ‘I’ve heard that/ I’ve read that… these are some of the things that kids go through… are these things that your friends or you might also be going through?’. You can try to have time-limited, focused conversations such as in the car, walking the dog
· It can help to use ‘I statements’, eg ‘I would like to have a chat with you about puberty because I want to let you know what I know about, and hear about anything that’s worrying you’ or ‘I’m worried you might be worrying about what’s happening in your body, so I’d just like to check-in. Even if it’s just so I can let you know about a good website or book’
· Check in about the ‘village’ ‘If you were worried about something, who do you think you could tell or talk to? (suggest yourself/ other parent/ siblings/ teachers/ relatives/ parents of friends/ health professional)
· Communicate your principles or values, such as respect, tolerance etc; it can be very useful to have conversations about these that have nothing to do with puberty. Sometimes fictional or news stories can be good triggers for these conversations. Be open to exploring their beliefs with them. Be aware of your own bottom lines.
“ We live in a constantly connected, hyperactive sort of world now, there is a lot of competition and pressure to achieve, or to know what you want to do or be ”
What changes need to be made in sexual education?
An attitudinal shift in society – that adolescent sexuality in all its diversity is natural, and that children and adolescents have the right to know about their bodies and feelings and where to get advice and help. If sex education is limited to reproductive biology and STIs, we are missing out on the things adolescents actually want to know about. More support and resources for teachers and schools to be able to teach consent, diversity, respect, and tolerance. Acknowledging pleasure, as something that should be expected, as much by girls as boys.
You get asked a lot about what is normal – is comparison one of the biggest hurdles for adolescent girls?
It can be seen as a hurdle, or it can be seen – and explained to adolescents themselves – as a natural phenomenon that can be managed. At the same time, it would be good to break out of the normal/abnormal paradigm and acknowledge diversity. The more we can do that in society the easier it will be. There will always, I think, be a natural preoccupation with the changes of puberty – physical, emotional, and social – but this can be celebrated rather than pathologized.
Mental health is a growing concern for adolescents – why is this on the rise and what can we do to support our children’s mental health? What insights do you have on the adolescent mind?
There are many and complex reasons for the increase in mental health problems not just among adolescents but older people too. One is that we are better at recognising it, although there are still far too many people who don’t receive the support they might benefit from, and stigma plays a big role in that. Other explanations are complex – we live in a constantly connected, hyperactive sort of world now, there is a lot of competition and pressure to achieve, or to know what you want to do or be. Many of our systems aren’t particularly geared towards the adolescent’s brain and body development – for example, their body clock changes at puberty and most adolescents need more sleep, going to bed later and waking up later. But our work and school hours don’t allow for that. We need to do a lot more as a society to nurture tolerance and acceptance for diversity, as well as gender equality.