How to Prepare Girls for Puberty

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There's no arguing that puberty can be a stressful and confusing time. Everyone has a puberty horror story. From embarrassing accidents and acne breakouts to hormone fluctuations, unwanted hair growth, and PMS, the list goes on and on. But, for some this awkwardness is compounded by the fact that they feel unprepared for puberty. This is particularly true for girls who start puberty before age 12, and girls whose parents have minimal knowledge of what their child is experiencing. And, when this happens it can lead to negative experiences during a crucial part of her development.

In fact, according to research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, an unexpectedly large number of girls and tweens report feeling ill-prepared for menstruation and changes occurring in their bodies as well as reproductive health. While many girls reported gaining puberty and menstruation information from one source such as their mother, sister or a teacher, they still felt the information was incomplete, inaccurate and provided too late.

What's more, some girls report feeling scared, traumatized and embarrassed by the arrival of their first period. Most of the time, these negative feelings are associated with being underprepared for puberty. Sometimes girls did not know what was happening with their bodies when they started menstruating, let alone how to manage blood flow. The timing of puberty also impacted their experiences. In other words, the earlier puberty occurred, the more negative the experience.

This lack of knowledge and preparedness suggests that more steps need to be taken to educate girls on the process of puberty and how to manage the changes taking place in their bodies.

Puberty Education Is Needed Sooner

Over the last 25 years, the age of puberty development has declined in the United States. In other words, girls are younger and younger when they begin showing the first signs of puberty. In fact, for African-American girls especially, it is not uncommon to show the initial signs of development as early as age eight. When early puberty occurs, it may lead to an increasing number of girls without appropriately-timed puberty education. What's more, starting menstruation at an early age has been associated with more negative experiences.

What's more, some girls complain that parents jump immediately from menstruation to pregnancy prevention, often leaving out explanations of what is happening to their bodies as well as practical suggestions on how to deal with the changes.

Skipping straight to warnings about pregnancy often leaves girls feeling confused and wanting more information. Girls need to know how menstruation works, why it happens, how to manage it as well as how to predict when their next period will come.

How Puberty Progresses

When the process of puberty begins in a young girl, the first changes that occur are not visible ones. For instance, some of the first changes that take place include changes in hormones due to the activation of the hypothalamus, a regulator in the brain. Meanwhile, other changes take place in the ovaries with the secretion of the sex hormone. Other early signs of puberty are moodiness, increased body odor, and vaginal discharge.

Breast Development

Developing breast buds is usually the first visible sign that puberty is just around the corner and is often accompanied by a growth spurt. This is usually followed by the development of pubic hair. In one study of 8- and 9-year-olds, 5% of Caucasian girls and 15% of African American girls had some breast development. Meanwhile, 8% of Caucasian girls and 34% of African American girls ages eight to nine had pubic hair. It is important to note that breast development before age eight is considered early and should be evaluated by a pediatrician.

First Period

Approximately two to two and a half years after the breast buds first appear, girls will experience menarche or their first menstrual cycle. In the United States, the average age for menarche is 12.77 years old. Most researchers attribute the declining age of menarche due to improper nutrition. Keep in mind, too, that girls with low body weight and low body fat tend to have delayed menarche. Additionally, most girls will not experience regular menstrual cycles right away. Instead, it may take up to 14 months before their cycles even out.

If your daughter's periods occur more frequently than every 28 days or if they last longer than seven days, you need to talk with her doctor. You also should discuss excessively heavy bleeding or having extremely painful periods.

Challenges of Early Puberty

When young girls begin puberty earlier than their peers, the transformation they are experiencing is anything but comfortable. In fact, it is often fraught with frustration, confusion, stress and more. In fact, there is even an increased risk of depression, substance abuse, and early sexual activity.

When a young girl is the first in her peer group to begin the process, there is an increased risk for challenges because she wants nothing more than to fit in. If she goes through puberty before her peers than she is experiencing something that they cannot relate to. What's more, a number of studies have found that when girls develop early, there can be long-lasting effects on mental health. Aside from depression, girls who go through puberty early have an increased risk of eating disorders as well as disruptive behavior disorders. They also tend to be more anxious and less confident than their peers.

When She Appears Older Than She Is

One of the biggest challenges with maturing early is the amount of social pressure these young girls experience. Even though their bodies look mature, their actions may not. This fact can result in negative opinions and assumptions by adults and others that do not know them or their age. Whether they are trick-or-treating or hanging out with friends at the mall, people who do not know them make assumptions about their age and maturity level and when the two do not match, they may be criticized or treated poorly. What's more, parents may also grant more freedoms to their early developers because they look older. Doing so can result in exposure to older kids and risky behaviors.

Another factor impacting early puberty is race. For instance, researchers have discovered that although African American girls often go through puberty early, they are less likely to experience the negative effects than girls of European American descent who mature early.

Still, researchers urge parents not to panic if your daughter goes through puberty early. Although she is at an increased risk of depression, anxiety and other issues, most young girls that mature early get through puberty just fine. As long as they have a solid support system at home, and develop adequate coping skills they will be just fine.

How to Talk to Your Daughter About Her Changing Body

Talking to your daughter about puberty is an important role for parents. And, it is a conversation you want to have before the changes start to happen. Unfortunately, though, many parents feel ill-equipped to have this conversation, and they may be a little bit uncomfortable themselves.

But, you cannot let those feelings keep you from having this all-important conversation. Remember, talking to your daughter about the changes she will experience not only eases her worries and stress, but also can be a time of bonding for both of you; and, if done early enough will prepare her for what she is about to experience so she will not be shocked or overwhelmed by her first period. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

Start the Talk Early

By the time your daughter is 8 years old, she should know what changes her body will go through that are associated with puberty. To many parents, that may seem young, but keep in mind that some of her friends may be wearing training bras already. What's more, you do not have to go into a lengthy discussion, but be sure she knows that soon her body will begin going through some changes.

Talk About Menstruation Before She Gets Her Period

Remember, girls who are unaware that their body may be changing may be frightened by the sight and location of blood if they have not had a discussion with you. Although most girls do not get their period until they are 12 or 13 years old, some will start their menstrual cycles as early as 9 years old. Meanwhile, others may not start menstruating until they are 16. You want to do what you can to prepare her beforehand.

Give Your Daughter the Supplies She Will Need

Long before your daughter starts her period, you want to be sure she is stocked with supplies like tampons and pads. Talk to her about how to use both and make sure she knows that she will need to change her pad or tampon frequently throughout the day. Be sure to tell her that the same tampon should not be left in for an extended period of time. Keep in mind that your daughter will likely start her period when she away from home. So, if you think she is getting close, be sure she has a pad in her backpack just in case.

Keep it Lighthearted

Most girls are interested in more practical advice like what to do if they start their period at school. They also will want to know what to expect. Reassure them that most likely their first period will be very light and not a heavy flow. It also will be inconsistent, which means being prepared with supplies for those unexpected situations.

You also can discuss finding a bra that fits properly and shopping together for something cute while having a conversation about puberty. This will relieve some of the stress of having the conversation on the edge of the bed. Finally, show her how to track her period.

Avoid Being Dramatic

Refrain from overdramatizing the changes she will experience, especially those related to her menstrual cycle. You want to avoid scaring her about the pain associated with cramps or the mood swings she may experience. Stick to the fact that this is a perfectly natural process that her body is going through and that there is nothing to be afraid of or grossed out by.

Reassurance is Key

Many girls are uncomfortable with their changing bodies and worry about their appearance. Reassure them that what they are experiencing and how they look is completely normal. Meanwhile, other girls will worry that they are not developing soon enough and have concerns about the lack of or size of their breasts. It is important to let them know that everyone develops at different rates and that there is nothing wrong with them. They are beautiful just the way they are.

Finally, remember, as your daughter starts to develop she will have questions. Be patient and listen to her concerns. Answer her questions honestly and to the best of your ability; and if you do not know the answer, research it together or talk to her doctor. The key is not to respond with an "I don't know" and leave it at that. You want to be a good source of trustworthy information for her. Not answering her questions just leaves her feeling frustrated and tempted to turn to her peers for advice, which is not always accurate.

A Word from Verywell

Ideally, every girl in the United States should feel encouraged, informed, and confident about their changing bodies and their future reproductive health. Doing so is a key step in building their confidence and self-esteem as well as helping them feel supported and prepared despite the new, and sometimes confusing, changes that are happening inside of them.

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • "Early Menstruation." Palo Alto Medical Foundation, October 2013.

  • "Puberty Experiences of Low-Income Girls in the United States: A Systematic Review of Qualitative Literature From 2000 to 2014." Journal of Adolescent Health, April 2017.

  • "Study Finds Girls Feel Unprepared for Puberty." Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, January 5, 2017.

  • Weir, Kirsten. "The Risks of Earlier Puberty." American Psychological Association, March 2016.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.