James Beck and Christian Gallen are part of our Attitude team, and have been for a long time. Between them, they have delivered presentations to over 300,000 young people nationwide, helping them make better choices around drugs and alcohol, sex, depression, youth suicide, technology, social media and having great relationships with their families.
For generations this has been a conversation between mums and daughters, with dads being pretty happy to have little to nothing to do with it. As two dudes we don’t have much experience as women – none, in fact. However, as part of the Attitude team, we have learned how to talk to girls about puberty – and it’s not actually that hard.
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Why talk to your daughter about puberty?
One of the best things a parent can do for their daughter is to be comfortable talking about her body – that includes you, dads. Let’s be honest, most guys know how babies are made, where they come from and what happens once a month if a baby doesn’t get made. The sad reality is that many parents choose not to engage with questions about puberty. Some feel way too uncomfortable talking about tampons and breasts and the new feelings that their daughter may be developing towards the singer from some awful ‘boy band’. When it comes to puberty, you don’t have to have all the answers – but you do need to be open to the questions.
Girls today are growing up in a highly sexualised culture. Unfortunately, it is more likely than ever that girls and their bodies get sexualised from a young age. This can often lead to body image or self-esteem issues, and the relentless comparison that can happen during the adolescent years. When parents avoid talking about certain topics, young women can end up concluding that their normal functions or sexuality are somehow things to be ashamed of.
That is one of the main reasons why it is so important to be able to talk to your daughter about all of the changes she will experience during puberty. Here are the questions we get asked most often and some short answers to them. They’re written as if your daughter was reading them. We hope it will help.
What is puberty?
It’s the name for the stage of change that every single human goes through. You will experience physical changes, emotional changes, your brain does some changing, and your relationships change as well.
When does it happen?
Unfortunately, puberty happens at different times for everyone. It would be so much easier if everyone got sweaty and started growing breasts on the fourth Monday of Year 7, but it just doesn’t work like that.
Having said that, it usually starts between 9 and 12 for girls. For boys it usually starts between 10 and 13 – so you get a head start. Often that means that for the first few years of high school, you will be taller than most of the boys. You will probably be more mature as well. But by the end of high school, the boys will catch up – in height. They will probably be immature until they hit 30 (well, that’s what happened for us anyway!).
Why does it happen?
Your body creates and releases a tidal wave of hormones at this time of life. The superstar of the female hormone-show is called oestrogen. These hormones trigger your body to start becoming a person who can grow more people.
There are a lot of changes that happen for both boys and girls. Both boys and girls grow taller, get sweaty, get smelly, your hands and feet get bigger, you get stronger, and you start to grow hair under your arms and around your private parts.
Should I shave my hair?
The interesting thing is that our culture has different ideas about boys and girls. It is completely expected that boys will be hairy little men, with hairy legs, arms and armpits.
However it is less normal for girls to have hairy legs and armpits. Now if you want to have hairy legs and armpits, then you go for it. There is no rule that says you can’t. Having said that, at some point most girls decide to start a war with their leg and armpit hair. It is a war that eventually the hair will win, but most girls go to battle for at least 60 years.
It is worth talking to a battle-hardened hair-fighting veteran for some ideas about how best to attack your hair. Shaving can be a little bit tricky if you are newbie, so if you do decide to remove some hair, get some tips first.
There are also some things that happen during puberty that only affect girls.
Will I grow breasts? Why? When?
Yup, you will grow breasts. They are primarily for feeding babies eventually – way, way, way in your future. Some girls really want breasts, some girls really don’t want breasts, most guys don’t want breasts, but some guys still get breasts – but they are no good to babies.
It happens at different times for everyone, but when it happens for you, you may want to start wearing some sort of bra. Again, you don’t have to, but apparently it is way more comfortable.
What is a period?
A period (or your menstrual cycle) is another thing that begins during puberty. A period is when the lining of your uterus (which just looks like blood) flows out of your vagina. From living with our respective wives, we have observed that this isn’t the most enjoyable experience in the world.
Often women feel tired, or run down, or moody, and on top of those feelings, there is the reality of blood coming out of your vagina. Sometimes your stomach can feel all crampy and stuff too. Here is all that we know – pretty much every woman throughout history has learned to manage having a period. And because of pads and tampons and moon cups, it is easier than ever to deal with.
This is one of those things that dads haven’t actually experienced. But you can still ask your dad to buy you tampons from the supermarket. To be honest, you could probably ask him for tampons and chocolate and you will probably get both. Mostly because then he can hide the tampons behind the chocolate at the supermarket, and also because chocolate seems to make almost everything better.
What is normal?
It is reassuring to know that there are parts of puberty that everyone experiences and so yes, it is normal when you break out with acne. But ultimately you are not normal, you are unique.
So parents, what really matters?
Puberty can be a really insecure time for so many teenagers as they navigate those years of feeling different and learning how to be happy with the body they’ve got.
One of the best things a parent can do is reassure their daughter that her value doesn’t come from what her body looks like. Reassure her that you love her and that she matters to you and that she’s beautiful. The rest of the world will do a pretty good job of telling her what the perfect body is supposed to look like, but if she has your reassuring voice in her head then she will be okay.
Attend a Toolbox parenting course
Toolbox courses inspire and equip whānau. They are bursting with great advice, humour and encouragement, offering practical strategies and insights into developmental stages. Parents leave reassured that challenges are common to all families and that they’re not alone on their parenting journey. The courses are run over a number of weeks in a relaxed and conversational small group setting with a trained facilitator. The five courses – Building Awesome Whānau, Baby and Toddler Years, Primary Years, Intermediate Years, and Teenage Years. Find out more and register here.