Puberty in girls: help your daughter across the stepping stones

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Puberty in girls: help your daughter across the stepping stones

The ups and downs of growing up can leave parents feeling wholly confused – and their daughters bewildered. Every girl’s experience of puberty is different, but this tumultuous time can be made easier if you understand more about what is actually going on beneath the surface.

“Contrary to cultural myths, puberty is not all about hormones,” says Dr Tara Cousineau, clinical psychologist and expert in adolescent self-esteem. “When parents understand the changes in a teenage girl’s brain, some of their moodiness, flakiness and unpredictable nature begin to make sense. Girls’ brains are going through an incredible transformation – one that will allow them to be caring and responsible grown-ups.

“At the same time, girls’ bodies and brains are also being bombarded by reproductive hormones. And, on top of this, as females they tend to have a higher sensitivity to stress, which often expresses itself in girls’ heightened need to ‘fit in’ with the crowd, their body-image concerns and their worries about what other people think about them.”

What changes during puberty can you expect from your girl?

So what should you expect as your daughter reaches adolescence? Not all teenage girls have a tough transition. In fact, many fly through their teen years with ease and enthusiasm.

However, there may be times when you find her more argumentative – not because she consciously wants to be, but because her biology is driving her towards independence. Another sign of this is that she may have an increased need for privacy. Her bedroom door, always previously open, may now be shut – perhaps for several hours on end. Don’t panic – your girl is working out who she is, away from you.

That’s really what adolescence is all about – it’s a time of separation. Although a daughter’s need for independence is natural, it can feel upsetting for parents. Why? Because part of your daughter is still that little girl whose mummy can make everything all right. But somewhere inside she’s realising that’s not going to work forever and she has to come up with a strategy for growing and surviving alone – while still feeling connected to home.

Puberty in girls does mean an emerging sexuality – and ‘selfies’

Another factor, which parents sometimes try not to think about, is their daughter’s emerging sexuality. The primal urge of female puberty is to make themselves sexually attractive and competitive among female peers. Girls may not be aware of this unconscious drive. This is a key reason why they tend to become much more focused on their physical appearance and body image.

Suddenly, the daughter who hardly spent any time in the bathroom is hogging it for hours on end, spending ages in front of her mirror trying on different outfits and sending ‘selfies’ to her girlfriends.

Puberty in girls changes relationships: Friends first, family second

The centrality of friendships is another major change. Hormonal and brain changes at this time wire girls to become more social and more communicative and the way they play that out is to put their friendships above everything else in their life.

From puberty, girls react more strongly to relationship stresses than to almost anything else. Girls’ self-esteem through their teens is maintained by their ability to sustain intimate friendships. They ‘need’ to be liked and socially connected, and that’s why conflict in their friendships drive their stress system wild.

Dr Cousineau notes: “Where once upon a time girls spent hours on the telephone, passing notes and dealing with drama in the school hallways, these days friendship troubles can be amplified by misreading cues from texts and social-network posts. Girls tend to ‘read into’ what friends may be trying to say because they can’t see their faces or hear their tone of voice.

“This matters when a teen girl’s brain and body is undergoing big changes and new neural pathways are being created. Interpersonal cues, eye contact and empathic experiences need to be fine-tuned, too. So encourage her to have more face-to-face interactions.”

Teenager or toddler? Mood changes during puberty

With so many changes going on, and potentially volatile interactions taking place, it can be very helpful for parents to keep in mind that there are two phases in a human’s life when such massive cognitive changes take place – in the first three years of life and during the teen years. And in some ways, it helps to think of your teenage daughter’s behaviour and reactions during puberty as if she were a toddler. She’s trying to make sense of her world while her brain is in a remodelling phase, and it can be frustrating.

Who is the adult? Puberty changes in girls don’t make them mature

What you have to do, says Dr Cousineau, is NOT assume your teenage daughter can respond like an adult. She can’t.

“A teenage meltdown can be very puzzling to a mum,” she explains. “Trying to be rational and logical doesn’t work when your daughter is in a rage. Her brain is an emotional flood and she can’t hear you.”

When your teen is in a meltdown, consider treating her the way you used to treat your tantrum-ing toddler. Depending on the scenario, showing compassion and connecting with her emotional state may be the best choice.

If, on the other hand, she is being a tyrant, it’s time to stand firm. Wait until she has calmed down, suggests Dr Cousineau, before attempting a rational discussion or thoughtful reflection on the situation (this could mean waiting a few hours or until the next day).

Puberty changes are tough, but all problems have a solution

Ultimately, you want to let her know you are there for her and all problems have a solution. “Tell her things are going to be OK and you are there to help,” she adds. “Reassure her that things can work out. Because they usually do.”

While they do usually work out over time, there are almost certainly going to be a few bumps along the way. It’s going to help if you can be calm and grounded. The more you can be prepared for what may come your way as your daughter grows up, the better you can support her – as well as finding it easier to survive yourself.

Puberty in girls:
stages of physical changes during puberty

Puberty starts with a growth spurt of between 5-6cm and a slight swelling of the nipples, usually when girls are around eight to 10 years of age (in boys, puberty starts slightly later, at around nine to 11). From around 11, the areola (skin around the nipples) starts to swell, and pubic hair develops. The growth spurt continues at around seven to eight centimetres a year.

From 12, the breasts enlarge and girls often need to start wearing a bra. Budding breasts feel like they’ve got a hard lump behind the nipple. Sometimes one breast buds before the other. (Make sure your daughter isn’t worried she has cancer. Because of all the publicity about breast lumps, some girls silently worry about this.)

Other changes begin as well, such as body odour and skin changes. Pubic hair becomes coarser and underarm hair grows as well. The growth spurt is now at its fastest, around 8cm a year.

A girl begins to experience monthly periods. This can occur anywhere between ages eight and 14, with the average age around 12 years. About one to two years after the onset of menstruation, a girl’s growth rate slows down. Girls tend to reach their adult height around age 14.

round 13-14, the breasts develop into a more adult shape. Girls’ hips begin to widen and her shape may take on the body shape of other biological females in the family. She may become curvier and could gain up to 50% of her body weight in a few short years. For some girls this may be troubling, while for others it seems natural as they gain height.

This is a sensitive time for body-image concerns and self-esteem. Setting up her expectations based on natural biological changes and genetic history is important for a girl.

Please don’t worry if your daughter’s experience doesn’t exactly match with the timeline above. There’s a wide variation of what’s ‘normal’ and children’s experiences may be a bit different.

If you’re worried about any aspect of your child’s development, talk to your doctor.

What next: action steps to help your girl through the stages of puberty

  • Make sure your daughter knows about breast and menstrual changes at puberty – it will help put her mind at ease to understand that these are changes everyone her age will go through at some point and you are there for her to ask any questions, even if she feels awkward.
  • Be a guide. Review the options for sanitary protection online and talk to your daughter privately about how she feels about them. Then, when you’re in the supermarket or pharmacy, you can walk her down to those sections and talk about what sanitary towels and tampons she might want when she starts having periods. Don’t assume she’ll ‘just know’ about these things.
  • Shopping for a bra the first time can be awkward for girls, so introducing a ‘sports bra’ can make for an easy transition. (There are some girls who resist a bra when it’s starting to become apparent they need one.)
  • Encourage your daughter to keep a journal or diary (for her eyes only) to help process her feelings. This is a time of huge change and writing things down will help her negotiate her way through it.
  • Support your daughter in adopting positive healthy habits, like eating balanced meals, exercising and getting a good night’s sleep.
  • Stay relaxed yourself. Puberty is a phase where mums and dads can serve as important role models. The best way to do this is to stay calm and work on your own self-care – this means treating your body with respect, eating healthily and being physically active. It also means showing how to handle emotional states, by taking quiet time for yourself and remembering you are the adult in the relationship.

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