When and how to have "the talk" has parents confused, which leaves girls ill-equipped to handle the changes coming their way, according to new research.

teen girl reading
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It's a topic I'm not exactly looking forward to discussing with my three daughters: puberty. And not because I'm uncomfortable talking about breast development, their periods, and safe sex. It's because I can't believe that one day soon they'll be old enough to have these conversations!

I'm not alone in my hesitancy to have "the talk," according to a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health But parents' reluctance (for whatever reason) to tackle puberty topics with their daughters has real consequences. In fact, according to researchers, most girls in low-income families are unprepared for puberty and even have largely negative experiences during this important transition.

A review of African-American, Caucasian, and Hispanic girls, mainly in urban areas of the Northeastern U.S., found many lack coping skills to deal with menstruation, due to a lack of information. This is especially true given that, according to the research, the average age of breast development and first menstruation has lowered in recent years, with nearly half of African-American girls experiencing signs of physical development by age 8—an age much younger than many parents, including myself, would think to have any kind of talk.

"The transition through puberty is a critical period of development that provides an important opportunity to build a healthy foundation for sexual and reproductive health," said Marni Sommer, DrPH, MSN, RN from the Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, in a press release. And that is why the fact that girls aren't receiving adequate information is such a problem, with potential long-term effects.

Interestingly, according to the paper, girls did report being exposed to puberty topics from parents, siblings, or teachers, but most confirmed the information was inaccurate, insufficient, or provided too late. Many girls said they felt disappointed by what their moms told them about puberty. Meanwhile, moms admitted they felt unsure of when to talk about puberty with their daughters, and even confessed to feeling uncomfortable, or misinformed themselves.

Another finding that emerged was that the information tended to focus on safe sex, and skipped other important puberty-related topics, and also lacked the right tone.

"Many girls in the various studies that were reviewed reported a desire for a real emotional connection and conversation with their mothers (or parents) about the pubertal changes happening in their bodies, and the possible implications of such changes for their social interactions with peers and others," Dr. Sommer told Parents.com. "Although some girls reported conversations with their mothers, with information about their periods having been conveyed, girls often felt it was insufficient to meet their needs and answer all of their questions, and to help them feel confident about the body changes occurring."

She adds, "Many mothers (or caregivers) themselves felt uncomfortable and inadequate in their ability to deliver the guidance they felt their daughters needed about puberty and its many emotional and physical changes. This would suggest that parents need to first feel more prepared to have these types of conversations with their daughters, and to feel bolstered in their efforts by the reality that their daughters do in fact want their guidance and support."

Co-author Ann Herbert, doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, adds about the need for improvement, "Missing are the voices of adolescents with non-conforming gender role and sexual orientation."

Herbert also told Parents.com, "In the studies included in the review some girls complained that discussions about menstruation with their parents jumped immediately to warnings about avoiding pregnancy. Skipping straight to warnings about pregnancy prevention left girls feeling confused and wanting of more information. When their daughter first starts her period, parents don't seem to realize that jumping from the topic of menstruation straight into topics about pregnancy prevention means they are skipping over a lot of important information such as how menstruation works, why it happens, how to manage it, and how to predict when your period will come. Parents should definitely be discussing pregnancy prevention with their children, but they could remember that their daughters will also simply have questions about their bodies and menstruation that are not necessarily directly related to sex."

In the end, while this research focused on lower-income families, and stresses the need for more "robust interventions" in these communities, it seems we all could do more to prepare for conversations about puberty with our daughters (and sons!). Clearly they long for guidance, and not just the robotic, "here's the information," and "here's what not to do," kind.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of coffee.