You don’t have to wait until your child’s started puberty to talk about it. The more you explore the facts of life together – from naming body parts to discussing sex and relationships – the more normalised and less taboo these topics will be.
Discussions can stem from everyday situations, so take advantage of the opportunities that allow you a natural way into a conversation. If you are a mum, you could be getting changed in front of your daughter when she asks: ‘Why are your boobs much smaller than Aunt X’s?’, or putting tampons in your shopping basket when she says: ‘Why don’t men need those?’. These questions will allow you to have honest chats sparked by your child’s curiosity.
When you get into the habit of talking openly, your child will be familiar with the facts, so she’s less likely to find her personal experience of puberty scary, but rather a natural stage of life.
It’s sometimes hard to spot the earliest signs of puberty because they’re not always obvious. But understanding what a big impact the transition from childhood to adolescence will have on the way your daughter feels, looks and behaves is important if you want to be able to offer the most meaningful support.
Puberty usually starts in girls between the ages of 10 and 16, and can be over in about 18 months, or go on for several years. Periods typically start a couple of years after puberty begins. We’ve also written a piece on preparing your daughter for her first period and another for teens that covers everything from the first bleed through to PMS.
If you’re concerned that your daughter’s development doesn’t conform to ‘the norm’ (and what’s seen as ‘normal’ changes, so it’s hard to define) then you might want to consult a doctor. Don’t unnecessarily worry your daughter with comments like, ‘That doesn’t look right to me!’ before you’ve done your research, or talked to a medical professional.
For more than three-quarters of girls, breast buds are the first thing to appear. It’s normal for one nipple to start growing before the other, so don’t be alarmed if this is the case with your daughter. If you are an adult woman, you’ll probably notice a slight difference in your boobs (because let’s face it, nature rarely follows the rules of symmetry).
Other signs that puberty is in full bloom are pubic hair, rapid growth spurts and acne. We’ve written a piece for teens about what to expect (and when), which is useful if you need to brush up on your facts, too.
Your daughter’s body will get curvier, and it’s likely she’ll gain weight. Be sure to point out that these changes are positive, because your daughter may take time to adjust, and accept what’s happening. Even if you’re trying to be kind, be careful about the way you phrase things. “Those jeans really suit your shape,” is a much better thing to say than, “Wow, those jeans really emphasise your growing hips.”
Don’t be surprised when you say something to your daughter that’s perfectly harmless, and it causes her to burst into tears and storm out of the room. As adults, we can find certain situations trigger uncomfortable feelings. Now imagine how it feels for your child, who’s dealing with so many changes all at once.
During puberty, brains make new cells and develop different ways of thinking that can make your child feel out of control, overwhelmed and misunderstood. We’ve written something for teens about what happens in the brain, and how this can affect moods during puberty.
So how can you help your daughter deal with these emotional storms? It’s not easy seeing her angry or sad, and it can make you feel just as confused as she does. Most parents know that parenting is a hard job, but still feel like failures for not being able to fix problems and lift moods in an instant.
One question to avoid is: ‘Why are you acting so crazy?’. That will only make your daughter feel much more alone, and far less understood. Try to find out what’s at the root of the frustration, and encourage her to share how she’s feeling. If you’re stuck about what to say, and the situation is getting heated, then calmly suggest that you both take five minutes time out. Make it clear that you’re not punishing or abandoning your child. Instead, explain that a bit of breathing space is what’s needed.
Just as fashion and music tastes have changed since you were a teen, so too have the things your daughter does and the way she communicates. If you want to share what you went through, use ‘I’ so that you’re not speaking for her. Show that you understand how things were different when you were younger, and be curious about things your daughter is going through now. This will hopefully encourage her to own her experiences and feelings.
Because life is both rocky and smooth, it’s wise to share the positive and negative parts of puberty, because these will be more real and relatable for your daughter. A little bit of humour here and there could be just the thing to break the ice. If you are a mum and can recall the horror of your first bra (Where did you buy it? How did it feel? How did it look?) then go ahead. Puberty might be a serious business, but there’s still plenty of room for laughter.
It’s hard. You may work full-time, have other children, or lots of commitments – sometimes all three. But even ten minutes together snatched here or there can make all of the difference when it comes to supporting your daughter.
Don’t necessarily wait until she starts asking questions – she might be looking to you to kick off the more difficult conversations. Be brave. Part of being an adult is facing the things you find uncomfortable. Even if your daughter seems embarrassed, your courage will pay off in the long run.
A walk, drive in the car, or cup of tea at the kitchen table – time for just the two of you where you won’t be interrupted – is ideally what you need. Some things should be spoken about behind closed doors, not because they are shameful, but because a quiet space is what your daughter will want if she’s to talk openly and honestly.
If a question really flummoxes you, say you’ll get back to it when you’ve done your research, or had time to think. And make sure you do. Your daughter will feel far more comfortable having these intimate chats if she senses that you’re taking her seriously, by responding with care and consideration.
Remember, it’s not just your daughter who needs support. As a parent, you can only do your job well if you know how to look after yourself. It’s a good idea to chat with other parents you trust and feel close to. Just the very act of sharing similar experiences will be a comfort, as you give and gain advice around the trickier parts of parenthood.
When you’re feeling low, picking up the phone to a friend might seem really difficult, (just as answering anything other than ‘I’m fine’ to the question ‘How are you?’ can be). But it’s more than likely just the thing you need. And if you show your child that you often ask other people for support and advice, they’ll feel more inclined to do the same, and open up about the things they’re finding difficult.
We’ve written a piece for teens about how to handle puberty. We cover many of the things we’ve looked at in this article, so it’s worth a read.