Childline warns of unhealthy ignorance about puberty
Childline in Scotland backs the findings of the report, I know you're not a doctor but . . ., which show that calls about the effects of puberty were the fastest growing category. Out of a total of 12,000 health-related calls across the UK, those relating to puberty rose from 2,111 to 5,949 between 1994 and 1997.
From a sample of 197 calls, 15 girls under the age of 10 were menstruating. One eight-year-old had coped with her periods for several months without telling her mother.
Sheila Cross, author of the report and a retired consultant paediatrician, who is also a Childline counsellor, writes: "Primary schools now need to provide for girls beginning to menstruate whereas not so long ago this would have been a consideration only in secondary schools. Children are maturing earlier and need the information to cope with this."
Childline calls also cover concerns about sexual health. Dr Cross says: "I have sometimes been startled by the sexual knowledge and experience of some young callers, but they are calling because they want to take a responsible view of their emerging sex life. It is not easy, yet, for them to obtain advice."
Anne Houston, Childline's Scottish director, said: "We were surprised, even in 1990 when our service began, just how many children called about their puberty. I have heard a number say: 'I've got blood in my pants - am I going to die?' "It is a myth that young people know it all. There is a staggering number of children who have a real lack of clarity about basic facts about puberty and growing up, and the changes taking place in their bodies."
Another myth was the assumption that children had support at home. Some callers "may feel unable or too embarrassed to talk to their mums. Or they simply don't want to bother her," Ms Houston said.
But primary teachers can be "a source of support" and adequate training at pre-service and in-service stages was needed. Teachers should watch out for any changes in the behaviour of their pupils. "They should just ask the child: 'Are you OK?' That gives the child permission to talk."
The report also commended the role of school nurses. "They have an interesting position in schools. Like primary teachers they are accessible, but they have the advantage of not being a figure of authority," Ms Houston said.
* The Childline report also describes how some children with chronic illnesses do not take their medication for fear of appearing different from their peers.
One asthmatic child admitted to not carrying his inhaler "to pretend I'm normal". A diabetic girl said she would rather her classmates thought she was a drug addict than know her injections were to keep her insulin levels up.
"We do her a lot about children being bullied because they take medication, " Ms Houston said. But there is a good side, too. "Some are very supportive and phone on behalf of friends they are worried about."