How Do I Help My Tween Cope With Puberty Problems?

A growth spurt can certainly cause some growing pains. Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D, offers some tips for navigating puberty, body issues, and middle school locker room drama.

Ask Your Mom: Puberty Problems
Photo: Parents | Zoe Hansen

—Puberty Probs

Over the summer, my sixth grader got her period and had a growth spurt—she's already in a B cup. She's a bit anxious about her new body, and especially about having to change in the locker room in middle school, which is also new to her. How do I help her get comfortable with her body and her new situation?

——Puberty Probs

As a parent and psychologist, I am grateful that recent years have heralded a new era of increased awareness about the importance of healthy body attitudes as part of healthy adolescent development. I have heard from parents about how their kids' first periods are "no big deal" compared to when I was a kid and it felt top secret. Alongside this positive momentum, however, remains the timeless embarrassment and self-consciousness around a changing body. I love that you are posing this question, however, because parents can serve a critical role in supporting positive puberty adjustment.

Adjusting to a New Body

There's no way around the reality that boys and girls have different experiences with puberty. For example, the research shows that earlier puberty has negative effects on self-esteem for girls, where the opposite is true for boys (earlier puberty relates to greater confidence). This brings up what we can't ignore no matter how much we wish it weren't a factor: society treats women's bodies in harmful ways. This messaging runs so deeply across cultures, that we can forget it's there. But it's ever-present, and affects a girls' adjustment to developing a more womanly figure.

Since most of us likely feel unequipped to single-handedly change a cultural narrative as old as the image of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, let's focus on what we can influence. Science supports that mothers' attitudes about their own bodies, and related behavior, affects their daughters' body image. In the extreme version of body image problems, children of parents with eating disorders are more likely to develop their own. Although most children won't develop an eating disorder, this fact demonstrates how powerful our modeling can be. Some tips to guide positive modeling:

  • Watch what you say in front of your children about your own body. Negative comments that may have become automatic ("these jeans make my butt look big," "do I look fat in this?") are not harmless.
  • Refrain from commenting on your child's body, even if you mean it in a positive way. These comments reinforce that their body's appearance matters, and could be a bad thing if it changes. (And it will!)
  • Demonstrate comfort with your body. Even sucking in your stomach while looking in the mirror sends subtle messages about body dissatisfaction. In my home, I acknowledge that my stomach is different (jigglier) after pregnancies and remark on how incredible my body is to have grown three babies.
  • Avoid commenting on others' bodies (like celebrities)—again even if they are positive comments. I make an exception when I see an opportunity to encourage healthier attitudes. My daughters both do gymnastics, a sport known for endangering a growing girls' body and valuing the smaller and less curvy body type, so I point out professional gymnasts with more curves and shape than the norm.

Open and Honest

With this age, unless you have an unusually relaxed and open middle-schooler, I suggest finding a couple good books to leave in her room so she has access to information vetted by you. (A Mighty Girl has a great list!) You can casually let her know, in some low-pressure moment, that you hope she likes the books and you're always there to talk more. As I'm currently parenting a 7th grade daughter, I find that she shares quite a bit more when the timing is on her terms. Once she starts chatting, I do whatever I can to stop what I'm doing and listen. Knowing her concerns helps you tailor where to tackle her discomfort. It sounds like you have done a great job laying this foundation for open and honest discussion, since you are aware of her specific fear of changing in the middle school locker room.

Locker Room: The Middle School Nightmare

The middle school locker room is a place made for horror movies. This developmental stage is all about feeling self-conscious and comparing yourself to others to see where you stand in the social hierarchy—and in the locker room, you're doing it naked. Literally. So many bodies, all at different places in the puberty timeline. The most reassuring truth I share with this age group is that everyone else is too focused on themselves to be judging. In other words, you're all in this together—not against each other. Reminding your daughter that her fear is universal can help ease the anxiety.

Ready to Respond

I don't want to sugarcoat the risk of bullying, however, which teen movies happen too often showcase in gym locker rooms. We do know that the more confident and self-assured a child is, the less likely they will be targeted by bullying in general. Some ways to prepare your daughter for teasing is to come up with a short, assertive response like "I don't really care what you think. I like my body." Even if she never has to use it, knowing she has a retort at the ready can help her exude confidence, making it less likely she'll need it. I often encourage young teens that the "fake it 'til you make it" approach can be powerful, and it's okay to fake confidence!

The Bottom Line

As we all know, managing our attitudes toward our bodies doesn't end with adolescence. The earlier your daughter can practice healthy ways of thinking about and treating her body, the healthier future she has ahead of her. This puberty in the locker room dilemma opens up so many opportunities: to keep establishing honest and open communication between mother and daughter, to influence healthy ways of your daughter thinking about her changing body, and to instill confidence in the vulnerable middle school years even if she has to fake it first. We may not be able to singlehandedly change generations-old cultural narratives about beauty and the female body, but we can do a lot in our home with our daughters as a start.

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 the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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