Your Little Girl Is Growing Up

In reality it happens slowly, but for many parents, the idea of their little girl growing up hits fast and hard. There are signs: her body begins to stretch out and be leaner; her attitude seems to shift suddenly from time to time. These times of change will cause internal and external stress to your daughter, and will challenge you to adapt your parenting skills.

Physical Changes

You've heard it said: puberty seems to be coming earlier and earlier for today's girls. Some studies point to the average age of the onset of puberty being a full year earlier than it was a half century ago, naming increased body mass index (BMI), as a possible reason. Whatever age your child starts, the beginning signs are usually the same.

Girls usually have a sudden surge in height (but not necessarily weight) at the very start of puberty. A year or more after that, girls begin to notice a darkening of the areola and the growth of a small mound at the breasts (called “buds”). This can be a surprise to the child, and the parent, and a particularly challenging time for the father (see Chapter 3 for more on fathers and dealing with development).

It is not unusual for one breast to grow faster than another, causing worry to the child. In addition, hands and feet grow faster than the rest of the body, which can mean a so-called “clumsy” time for a girl. Tennis star Maria Sharapova was young enough when she became a world champ to have gone through this before the eyes of the tennis-loving world. For a time, she had trouble moving to the ball. In time, her body caught up to itself and she returned to being the best in the world.

Pubic hair comes next, something some girls announce and others are embarrassed by. In any case, this development is proof that you are well into your life of having a child in puberty. While some girls may think this is a sign that her first period will be days away, in fact, only 20 percent of girls experience a first period at the first signs of pubic hair.

Essential

It's an old classic, and it got you through this time, and the good news is, while dated, it still works. Buy your daughter Judy Bloom's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret before she goes through this time of adolescence.

This is the time, too, when girls begin to experience things like body odor and acne. It is important to stay ahead of the curve with your daughter on these issues. Help her understand and practice good hygiene habits before she finds herself in an embarrassing situation. A “Shaving 101” lesson with mom (or another female in her life) is a good idea as well, since many girls will try — and botch — this necessary practice on their own.

You and your daughter may notice, too, an increase in body fat. Early pubescent girls can almost look “puffy” at times. It is important to share with your daughter, if she brings it up, that this is a perfectly normal part of development and that, as her height catches up, she'll find her body balances things for her (with healthy eating and an active lifestyle).

The Big “P”

Take a deep breath and shake out those nerves because, it's going to happen: eventually, your daughter will get her period. Being prepared for this major moment in life and knowing how to treat it with dignity and intelligence is one of the most vital things a parent can do for a daughter.

Alert

A girl's weight or activity level can affect when a period starts or does not start. If you are concerned that your daughter's period should have started, consult her health care provider.

By the time any girl is two years prior to the possibility of puberty, she should be well versed in what a period is, how it will begin, and what she should do about it. True, schools today to a good job of educating girls (and boys) on such issues, but she needs to hear it from you. Not only will this ensure that the two of you are on the same page, but perhaps more importantly, it will open the lines of communication between you on the topic.

When you do address the issue, be sure to let her know that a period in no way needs to interrupt her life or keep her from doing any of the activities she enjoyed before starting her period.

Girls will want to know, before they even need them, how and why to use all types of sanitary products. Particularly with tampons, where misuse runs the real risk of the dangerous toxic shock syndrome, girls need to be shown firsthand how to use supplies and how often to change them. Don't take anything for granted. And if it's uncomfortable or embarrassing for you or your child, just deal with it. The act of being open and honest, yet respectful, can lay the groundwork for sharing information on this and other topics in the future.

If your daughter refuses to discuss this at all, leave literature around the house about it. Give her the chance to read the information you provide. At least you'll know she's read some information.

Fact

Believe it or not, even in this era of information, your daughter may still be shocked by her body's changes. Always be sure to remind her that it is normal; all girls go through these changes.

And what about “celebrating” a period? Some modern moms believe in it, but take your child's wishes to heart. Some girls just don't want you posting a banner reading, “Little Anna is a woman now!” A quiet gift or a special outing for, say, a pedicure might be enough. Or, your child may prefer to just go on with life. Periods are, after all, just another part of life.

Describe cramping and premenstrual syndrome (PMS) to your daughter as well, and encourage her to share with you if she has any of these feelings. Let her know that there are ways to easily relieve it, and if such symptoms become severe, you'll be on the ready to find a good solution for her.

Emotional Changes

There's an old saying: an adolescent girl is really just a toddler in a bigger body, and that's not too far from true. The emotional changes that growing girls go through, caused by hormonal fluctuation, peer pressure, and just plain figuring out who she is in relation to you, her friends, and the world can be the roller-coaster ride of a lifetime. The challenge for parents is knowing why it's happening, what to expect, and most of all, how to react.

Some parents can remember the moment they first saw the emotional change in their daughter. An outburst or mini-breakdown about something that seems inconsequential to parents rocks the girl's world. Others find it creeps up on them: their sunny, always cooperative daughter is suddenly sullen and argumentative many times. Either way, the emotional changes during adolescence can be as frightening and confusing to the parent as they can be to the daughter.

Girls who were even-keeled and able to take on so much suddenly may be quick to snap in a harsh way at parents or in an emotional way with friends or at school. Don't be surprised if most of it is focused at you, the parent. There's a simple reason: children tend to test out new behaviors where they know they are safe. You love your child, and your child knows it. So when she snaps at you or speaks disparagingly, try (and this is a challenge) to see it as a sign of trust and love.

Question

How do I know if emotional changes are “normal”?

Many parents mistake the emotions of puberty with something more serious. If you have concerns, your best bet is a talk with your daughter's health care provider.

Girls may find at this time too that holding it together all day long in school is a burden. Many parents find, almost immediately after school, they witness “meltdowns.” This can be the pent up emotions she's been holding back all day long. It's a challenge for parents to find ways to channel that and help their daughter work through it. (More on this in Chapter 7).

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