Puberty Pains

My daughter is entering puberty and I’m finding it difficult to keep the channels of communication open. Every time I try to discuss the changes which are occurring (and those which she will soon experience), she doesn’t want to hear about it – it’s all too awful to talk about as far as she’s concerned. My experience as a young person was that my parents did not prepare me at all for this stage of life, which resulted in a lot of unnecessary upset and embarrassment. How do I provide my daughter with information which will ease the pains of growing up? Better still, how can I help her to actually celebrate this stage of her life?

When I asked my 14-year-old son about this question, he said “This isn’t exactly the greatest stage of her life. It’s metamorphosis. Most creatures go into those little dark caves and don’t come out until it’s over.” Ben put into words what I had been feeling – that puberty, at least in our culture, is inevitably a difficult time, and drawing attention to it does not necessarily help a child.

The first problem is with the body. My daughter Tamara, who wore oversized shapeless clothing that hid her figure all through her teen years, says that the biggest difficulty was society’s pressure to have a “perfect” body. We see all kinds of semi-naked bodies in the media, but they all have the same figure, one which is totally unrealistic for a grown woman or even a teenage girl. Eating disorders are a huge problem, as girls try to emulate these unrealistic figures. Every girl thinks her body is abnormal – her breasts are too large or too small, her buttocks and thighs too fat, and so on. Until we are honest about the human figure, girls and women will continue to feel this way. Ben stressed that adults should be careful not to comment on the way a child’s body is developing; it only brings on self-evaluation and self-consciousness, even if the comments are positive.

The second problem is the “teen scene.” A pre-teen child, especially a girl, may well want to deny puberty in order to continue to enjoy natural childish pleasures rather than having to join the dating and rating game that goes on in teen peer groups. In our society, children are pushed to “grow up” too fast, to start having boyfriends and girlfriends when they should still be having just friends, to prove their worth by attracting the opposite sex. And early sexual activity makes the teenage years much more difficult than they were for our generation. Young girls looking at this scene may well not want to join it. In Ben’s opinion, peer pressure is the most difficult part of puberty – in his words, she has to learn how to “not feel alien if she doesn’t do what everyone else does.”

Communication lines stay open when you listen to your child’s concerns and respond to her expressed need for information and emotional support, rather than when you tell her what you think she should know. If you deliberately bring up the subject too soon you may only make her resistant to hearing anything about it. In terms of information about body changes, the schools now teach a lot : you might want to contact your school principal and find out what your daughter will be taught and when. You might also consider books (consult your librarian) to convey information quietly without the embarrassment of a “little talk.” The most important task for parents today is not conveying biological information; it’s helping our children to be themselves and like themselves in the midst of a society which rates bodies mercilessly, and pushes them towards premature sexual activity. Puberty is indeed a difficult time for children, and we can’t take away their embarrassment and upset. The time for celebration is not at puberty; it’s after the pubertal metamorphosis has been accomplished successfully.

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