Girls can be especially socially and emotionally vulnerable to starting puberty before friends. Parents.com's "Ask Your Mom" columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says a parent's job is to balance sensitivity and support with making sure your child has access to reliable information.

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An illustration of a woman talking to her daughter.
Credit: Emma Darvick.

The last part of your question sums up every parent's wish for these complicated parenting issues: "is there possibly an easy way to deal with this?" Puberty falls under the column of complicated, unfortunately, as it wreaks havoc with our children's bodies, brains, and emotions. There may not be an easy way, but there are approaches and resources to at least make it easier on you, and ultimately on her. Although I have met many children excited to grow up and be teenagers, none looks forward to the puberty part!

I'm sharing this guidance through the lens of parenting a cisgender daughter, as the question implies. Puberty can be an especially challenging time for transgender and nonbinary youth. For resources to help you support your LGBTQ+ child through puberty, speak to your child's gender-affirming pediatrician, contact your local Planned Parenthood, or find a gender spectrum youth clinic near you.

Puberty Starts Earlier Than You'd Expect

For context, I think parents are surprised their children are starting puberty at young ages because that really has changed, even since we were their age. The average age of puberty onset has declined at a rate of three to four months each decade, for at least several decades. Statistics from medical records show that 100 years ago, the average age for girls' first periods was between 14 and 15; in the 50s, it was age 13, and today it is closer to 12. However, puberty is considered as starting up to three years before the period, with breast buds now emerging at an average of age 9. NINE. And that is an average, so plenty of girls are beginning the puberty process younger than 9. By comparison, in the 60s, the average age for breast buds was 13. (Boys' puberty can be harder to measure, but data shows they track with girls, with average age of onset at about 10-and-a-half, also a decline at the same rate over the decades.)

Guide Her to Information

Even though pushing you away is developmentally normal, it is important for her to somehow have information about what is happening with her body. It can be useful to offer her different ways to access this information. First, you can let her know that you are there to talk to her about puberty and growing up, sharing your own memories, and assuring her you will answer any question openly without embarrassment. Second, you can find books for her age to let her read at her own pace, in privacy (a couple of crowd favorites: It's So Amazing and The Ultimate Girls' Body Book). Since self-consciousness can be part of the puberty fabric, she may need to navigate the information on her own, at least to start. The critical part is that she has access to curated resources provided by you (not the wild word of the internet), and then she can choose how and when to use them.

You could also search to see if the Our Whole Lives (OWL) program, a sexuality education curricula, is available in your community. Since puberty inevitably connects right to s-e-x, it can be helpful to have an array of resources at your disposal. As cringe-y as this might be for child and parent alike, especially depending on how the parent was raised, data show that children whose parents talk openly about sex go on to make healthier choices (such as delaying sex and using protection when having sex).

Approach With Empathy

This pre-teen developmental phase is one when a sense of belonging is critical, and anything that makes a child feel different from their peers threatens this belongingness. Despite the above statistics about puberty, if your daughter is in a social circle where she is the first to go through these physical changes, this undoubtedly makes it harder on her, socially and emotionally. It sounds like she is communicating this to you in no uncertain terms! It can be helpful for you to approach her with wanting to understanding her experience. Caution: she may very well snap at you that "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!" as you try to assure her you do. Instead, show her by expressing interest in her experience and a desire to support her.

How to Help

Girls developing earlier than their peers need buckets of reassurance. If you can connect with her emotional experience of feeling self-conscious about her appearance, awkward, and different, maybe she will be more receptive to getting a bra as a way to feel less self-conscious, instead of more. Consider these tips to approach this emotionally sticky issue with your daughter to help her shift from "ballistic" to receptive:

  • Be curious: In the right moment (often in a car when you are not staring at each other), ask her what feels so terrible about having a bra. What are her worries? If you can better understand underlying concerns and feelings, you can better empathize.
  • Express this empathy, including possibly your own memories of starting to wear a bra, to show you can understand her perspective.
  • Offer the reason you suggest she start wearing a bra. After exploring emotions, she will likely be more receptive to the logic. You can also more easily come from a place of wanting to support her, like the desire for her to be less self-conscious and more confident.
  • Give her some choices about how to navigate the decision. Choices could include allowing her time to consider all you have discussed rather than expecting an immediate resolution, and ways to pick a bra that might even feel special, or at the very least, not so embarrassing (e.g., online only, picking one that feels most like a t-shirt).

The Bottom Line

Unfortunately, girls who begin puberty earlier are known to have more social and emotional struggles, compared to boys whose earlier puberty is linked to actually feeling more confident with higher self-esteem. (Thanks, gender norms.) Even if your daughter is of a "normal" age scientifically, if she is comparing herself to her friends, statistical averages do not matter to her. However, despite no easy way to manage this complicated issue, having parents to weather the puberty storm by her side helps her more than she will likely ever admit. Promise her she will survive. I promise you will, too!

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.