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Can You Talk About Her Body?
Excerpt from Daughters
by Lynda Madison, Ph.D., and Amy Lynch

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(A mom and her 10-year-old daughter work together in the kitchen.)
Mother: "I've been thinking we should talk about growing up. I mean, you're starting to change."
Daughter: (rolls her eyes) "Uh, right."
Mother: "Are there any questions you'd like to ask?"
Daughter: "I don't think so." (moving toward the door) "Actually, I know all this already."

Maybe you know how this mom feels. You need to talk with your daughter about physical changes, but somehow the conversation never goes the way you plan. Meanwhile, her body hurtles through an extraordinary transformation, its most profound since infancy.

No Longer a Little Girl

Around age 7 or 8, a girl's adrenal glands begin to release androgens, and puberty begins. Soon, the bones in her legs and arms grow long. Her hips widen, her breasts bud, the hair on her legs grows coarse, her waist becomes fuller, and her weight climbs. Two years before boys begin to change, girls go through a growth spurt and sprout underarm and pubic hair. They gain heightened energy and athletic prowess. Their sweat glands become more active, and they develop body odor. Their skin becomes oilier and more prone to pimples. Meanwhile, a girl's emotions shift into high gear, too. Her feelings and reactions become more intense, and she has new sexual feelings--not adult sexual desire, but intense crushes and a heightened awareness of people who are attractive to her. Finally, usually around age 12, girls get their periods, marking the formal end of what is medically defined as puberty (although they will continue to grow taller for about a year after that). Reaching puberty usually takes about four years, but five or six years is normal, and so is only two.

Ambivalent Reactions

Girls have many different reactions to the profound changes of puberty. Your daughter may be aghast to discover hair growing under her arms when she is 10, but comfortable with her period when it begins two or three years later. It's absolutely normal for her to feel betrayed by her body during this time, but it's also normal for her to be exhilarated about her newly curvaceous self. Many girls go back and forth between wanting to grow up and wanting to stay kids.
That was true of 12-year-old Leslie, a girl I saw in my practice. She had learned about menstruation in a human development class, but her mother had never talked with her about it. When her first period came, Leslie longed to share her feelings with her mother, but didn't know where to begin. She feared that her mother didn't care, or that there was something shameful about the way her body had changed.

All these changes are hard to talk about. It's complicated, personal, potentially embarrassing, and fraught with emotion. A whole range of reactions, from joy to loss to confusion, is perfectly normal for daughters and parents alike. But if we don't talk to the girls we love, they become as confused and hurt as Leslie was. It's our job to reassure our daughters that they are exactly who they are supposed to be right now--no longer little girls but not yet young women. Someone new in the making.

Finding Words

These ideas may make conversation easier:

Gentle guidance. Whether you're her mom or her dad, your daughter needs your guidance as her body changes. Left to the messages she gets from the media, she may assume that puberty marks adulthood or it signals readiness for sexual activity. It's up to us to say, "This is a really amazing in-between stage that prepares you to become an adult later on. But not quite yet. Right now you're still a girl."

First steps. When your daughter is about 8, buy her some books about puberty. Look for friendly, reassuring texts like The Care and Keeping of You (Pleasant Company, 1998), The Period Book by Karen and Jennifer Gravelle (Walker, 1996), or Body Language: New Moon Talks About Growing Up (New Moon, 1999). Simply having these books around encourages questions and conversation, and talking about changes before they happen is always less embarrassing. If you skipped this step when your daughter was 8, do it now. It's never too late to show her that you care. Once her puberty is underway, suggest a shopping trip to a drug store to buy things she'll need as she changes. To reduce embarrassment, buy fun items like nail polish and shower gel along with deodorant, tampons, and a razor. At home, set aside a special drawer or shelf in the bathroom where she can store her things.

Lots of little talks. Supporting your daughter through puberty means having lots of little talks and check-ins with her rather than one big talk. Try matter-of-fact, specific openers such as, "I have read that some girls get their periods at 9 or 10. Has anybody in your class started yet?" or "If you're going to play basketball this year, let's buy you a sports bra so you'll be comfortable." Not all your comments will result in heart-to-heart talks. Still, they remind your daughter that you're there to answer her questions.

A sympathetic ear. Growing breasts may ache or twinge. Periods sometimes arrive with cramps or mood swings. Be sure your daughter knows that some discomfort is normal; otherwise she may fear something is wrong. Offer a sympathetic ear along with a heating pad, backrub, or pain reliever.

A Note to Dads

Your daughter needs to hear from you during puberty. While it's never appropriate for you to comment specifically about her body shape, it's important that you say things like, "You're going to be a beautiful young woman" and "I'm so proud of how you're growing up." Of course, if you're raising your daughter alone, she'll need even more support from you. These ideas may help:

Admit it's awkward. Tell your daughter that talking about this isn't easy for you either. Remember that simply listening sympathetically when your daughter talks about feelings or uncertainties is a comfort to her. Try, "This is new for both of us." Buy books about puberty for her, and read them before you give them to her.

Call in reserves. Tell your daughter that you want her to have a woman to talk with, too. If her mother isn't available, ask your daughter to decide on someone she trusts, such as the mother of a friend, an aunt, or a grandmother. With your daughter's consent, enlist this woman's help. Ask her to shop with your daughter for things she'll need, and make sure it's okay for your daughter to talk to this woman any time.

About Daughters.com
Created exclusively for parents, grandparents and caregivers of girls ages 8-15, itís where you find expert answers for all your questions about raising girls. Anchored by more than 250 articles on a variety of topics, from body image to building friendships and communicating successfully, you can connect with others who care about girls. Learn more at www.daughters.com.

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