I saw it—I'm not blind: The hair peeking from under those arms and the little sprinkle of it on her whahoo, too. The curvy hips and shapely legs and the bubble booty that would make the über-curvy Beyoncé do a double take. The changes were hard for me to miss; after all, I still supervised my 8-year-old's nightly supersplashy baths—the ones she happily shared with her little sister, a gang of doll babies, and a school of rubber fish. Still, when the pediatrician told my husband and me that it was time for us to have a talk with Mari about puberty, we were stunned into silence. How, after all, do you tell a child who still worships SpongeBob, Hubba Bubba bubble gum, and baths for two about boobs, bras, periods, cramps, zits, and PMS? We. Were. Not. Ready.
But clearly, we needed to get ready, because our little girl's body was starting to make the long, slow journey toward becoming a young woman's, and despite our collective freak-out, holding out on the info was no longer an option. Ivor Horn, M.D., a Washington, DC, pediatrician who counsels her patients' parents about puberty, acknowledges that parents are uncomfortable with such conversations because all too many of us have memories of our own experiences with parents too embarrassed or unwilling to spill. But, argues Dr. Horn, it's imperative that we inform our kids about the changes occurring in their bodies—before they get the crazy version of "facts" from fellow prepubescent playmates in the schoolyard. "The signs of puberty are a teachable moment," adds Dr. Horn, herself a mom of two, ages 7 and 9. "It's important to let children know they're okay the way they are, that you love them that way, that the changes in their body are normal, and they can come to you with any questions."
The comforting thing here is that if you and your child are staring puberty in the face and, like Nick, me, and Mari, your panties are in a bunch about it, you're not alone. Lucky for us, we're not the first to have kids going through The Change, and we sure as shooting won't be the last. So to help us through, I asked moms in the thick of puberty for useful tips.
What to Expect When You Have a Girl
Boobies + Bras
When to expect it: Between 9 and 13 (there's a wide range of normal here!)
What to expect: The estrogen that's being pumped into your tween's body from her ovaries causes breast budding—small bumps behind the nipples. Eventually the nipples and buds will get bigger, darker, and sometimes even pointy, becoming rounder and fuller over time. Her boobs will feel a little tender, and one breast may be bigger than the other. Let her know that this is totally normal and won't last forever. It's okay to give her acetaminophen if she's particularly sore. At this stage, you might want to get her a cupless or sports bra to help give her support and protect her tender breast tissue from rubbing against material that might irritate her, says Sherrie Strong, owner of a lingerie store in Snellville, GA.
How to deal: It's going to be hard adjusting to your daughter's new body, particularly if she's filling out quickly and looking more like a woman than a little girl. Try not to make a big deal about it—she's probably self-conscious enough. Tori*, a Frisco, TX, mom of four, simply put her daughter Gabi*, then 12, in a T-shirt to help her get a visual on why she needed a bra. Ally*, a New York City mom, gave her daughter, Carmen*, now 12, a bra heads-up about two years ago. "I just treated it like getting broccoli," says Ally. "When we went to Target, I'd say, 'Hey, pick out some bras you like and throw them in the basket.' Now she loves them so much she sleeps in them."
Tori had a hard time finding a bra that fit Gabi properly. Eventually a friend who works at Victoria's Secret offered to measure her daughter so they'd know exactly what size to buy. Getting fitted is a smart move; go as often as you would have her sized for shoes, says Strong: "Some girls seem to go to sleep an A cup and wake up the next day a C cup." Wearing a bra that fits well will help protect her from backaches, uncomfortable straps, and stretch marks, which come when the tissue in the breast is unsupported, she adds.
When to expect it: Between 10 and 15, with most typically getting their periods about two years after their breasts start to develop. Many girls also get a vaginal mucuslike discharge about six months before they menstruate for the first time.
What to expect: She's likely to have all the symptoms you have when you get your period: backaches, cramps, acne, PMS—the works. Don't expect it to be regular at first—it can take as long as two years before she'll establish a cycle.
How to deal: My talk with my mom about menstruation went something like this:
Me: "Mommy? We learned about periods in health class today. The teacher said we should get this kit. It comes with books and pads and stuff."
My mom: "Okay."
That was it. I don't want this for Mari and her 6-year-old sister, Lila, and you probably don't either. If you haven't already, tell your tween what will happen. No need to get all technical about it, just say, "Every girl's reproductive system—the part that helps your body make babies when you're a grown-up—is going to start working. There will be blood. You are not going to die. It's natural and normal. It'll be yucky. And sometimes your tummy will hurt. And you'll have a really bad attitude. But it happens to all of us."
One way to start the discussion might be the way Tori did: when her girls discovered her pads and tampons in the bathroom. "My motto is if they ask, I'll answer the best I can. I did tell them how to use pads, and that they'd get cramps, backaches, acne, and all that good stuff." Though my mom wasn't nearly as communicative, the kit she eventually purchased for me certainly helped prepare me for what was to come. I also remember thinking it was incredibly cool to have my own stash of stuff. You can buy some kits online—the Dot Girl's First Period Kit (dotgirlproducts.com) and the Petite Amie My First Cycle Kit For Girls (mypetiteamie.com) come with pads, tampons, and booklets for less than $25 apiece—but it's pretty easy to make one on your own for much less. Check out the Kotex and Tampax websites; they're full of information you can print out and put into a cute cosmetics bag with pads and tampons. You can add other items, too, like a heating pad, pain relievers, and sanitary wipes.
What to Expect When You Have a Boy
When to expect them: Somewhere between age 11 and late teens (and for some, even early adulthood)
What to expect: He won't look like Arnold Schwarzenegger overnight, but your son will start getting more muscular, mostly in his arms and shoulders. The male puberty hormone, testosterone, is working with growth hormones to make him fill out. Don't be surprised if you catch him making Hulk poses in the mirror—or asking for dumbbells. Dede King, a Brownsville, PA, mom of five, says that every night before bed, her 10-year-old, Cameron, does two sets of light weights he bought with her permission. "It's kind of humorous that I'm reading him his Boxcar Children story at the same time that he's trying to bulk up to look like a man," King says.
How to deal: He might be in a rush to keep up with his pals, but his developing muscles won't be able to withstand heavy weight lifting until he's about 13 years old, and even then it's important for him to have supervision and to increase weight slowly. Explain to him that the best way to build up his muscles is by eating healthfully and doing all the things kids do—running, jumping, playing—and doing team sports, says Charles Cappetta, M.D, adjunct associate professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. And if he wants to "work out," calisthenics, like push-ups, pull-ups, and squats, are better for him now and still build muscles. Sweating it out five days a week is plenty, no more than one hour a day.
Wet dreams + Masturbation
When to expect them: Between 10 and 14 for wet dreams; around 12 or 13 for masturbation (though it can begin sooner)
What to expect: As his body produces more testosterone, your son may start to ejaculate semen at night. Sometimes an erotic dream accompanies these releases; sometimes it doesn't. If they weren't masturbating before, most boys will figure out how to pleasure themselves around the time they hit puberty. (Girls masturbate, too—it just seems to be a bigger part of boys' lives.) Nona*, a mom from Atlanta, suspects her 11-year-old son has been masturbating for at least a year. He "politely goes into his room, closes the door, and goes to town!" she says. "How do I know? Well, he practically jumps off the bed each time I open the door. I'm not quite sure why he hasn't figured out that he can just lock it."
How to deal: If you haven't talked to your son about wet dreams and he has one, he might think he's peed in the bed, so give him the 411 and tell him this is perfectly normal. If he's embarrassed by the thought of his mom or dad changing his wet sheets, put an extra set in his closet and show him how to change the bed himself.
Also, try to remember that masturbation is normal human behavior—even though it's emotionally hard to accept the fact that your child is evolving into a sexual being. The more you remind yourself of this, the easier it will be to discuss it with him, while laying down some rules. Let him know that pleasuring himself is something he should do in private, and that he should never do it in a public place or a heavily trafficked room in the house where people could walk in on him. Parents have a new responsibility, too: It's time to start knocking on the bedroom door before barging in.
If you (or your tween) find it too uncomfortable to bring up the subject, try this: Kathy*, of Greenbrae, CA, fills an envelope with pieces of paper, each with a hot-button tween and teen concern like drinking, wet dreams, or shaving written on it, and has her son, now 15, pick one out every couple of weeks. The goal is to vary the level of mortifying subjects so they all get the same casual approach, says Kathy. "We call them Ten-Minute Topics. He actually looks forward to these conversations, and they often go longer than ten minutes!"
What to Expect in Both
When to expect it: 'Tude can start before any physical changes. For girls, between 7 and 14; for boys, between 9 and 15
What to expect: Brace yourself: Hormones won't just change children's bodies—they'll go straight to their brains, too. Their emotions will go on more roller-coaster rides than the summer crowds at Six Flags. Sensitive. Moody. Intense. Like you when you're PMS'ing, but about 1,000 times uglier. As tweens get older, the influx of hormones triggers abrupt mood swings and irritability. Part of the freak-out comes, too, when tweens see the physical changes their bodies are going through and realize they have no control over them. Elizabeth Donovan, a child mental-health therapist based in Centreville, VA, calls it the "eye-rolling, foot-stomping, you're-so-lame-Mom-and-Dad" stage. Ally calls it hard as hell. "She's a monster," she says of her 12-year-old, fresh off an argument over whether she can "hang out" at a local pizza parlor with her friends—sans adult supervision. Carmen's push for autonomy on everything from how she dresses to whom she befriends turns into almost daily arguments. "I think the peer pressure is there, but the hormones are also conspiring against us," says her mom.
How to deal: Try not to take it personally—she's acting crazy because the hormones are making her crazy, and she's looking for more autonomy because she sees this with her friends and on TV. Besides, you're a safe target; your kid knows you won't reject her, no matter how obnoxious she acts.
It's more important now than ever to set boundaries and establish new rules. "What your kid needs right now is a parent who's supportive and understanding, but also firm and consistent," says Donovan. Stay calm, don't get caught up in the arguments, and give your child a cooldown period so that the two of you can think about what you really want to say and how to say it, she suggests. But by all means, give appropriate consequences for bad behavior. "For example, if she refuses to stop screaming at you, consider taking away a privilege—something she really wants to do," says Donovan. "The key is consistency. If you say you will take away her trip to the mall, then you must do it; otherwise, she'll believe you don't mean what you say, and the negative behavior will increase."
Ally says letting Carmen have her say goes a long way in controlling the blowups. "We do let her vent about how much we're ruining her life," she says. "And even though I really do want to cut her off, I let her talk and I repeat back to her what she says so she sees I'm listening." Another coping mechanism: Laughing as much as she and her husband can when they're alone, says Ally. "We have to—to keep from losing it."
Stinky Underarms + Body Hair
When to expect it: For both boys and girls, beginning at age 9
What to expect: Puberty hormones make hair pop out everywhere: Boys will get it under their arms and on their chests, legs, pubic area, butt, and face; girls will get it under their arms and on their legs and pubic region. And thanks to estrogen or testosterone's effect on a tween's sweat glands, your kid will eventually start smelling like a little construction worker after a hard, hot day even if he's not sweating that much. Talia*, of West Palm Beach, FL, says she'll never forget the first time she noticed that her son, Smith*, then 10, smelled. "I picked him up from basketball, and all of a sudden it was just like, 'Whoa!' Now he wears Extra for Men."
How to handle it: When it comes to girls and shaving, choosing the right time to start is a decision (ideally) you both make together. That said, don't be surprised if she pipes up around fifth grade. There's really nothing wrong with her shaving now (as long as you show her how to do it safely), but it can't hurt to try to encourage her to put it off a year or so. Reminding her that once she starts shaving it's usually a lifelong commitment may just do the trick. Beards on boys are generally the last to develop (think high school)—you've got time on this one!
As for the first time you notice your kid smells, um, different, keep your approach simple: Explain that now that her body is changing, she needs to be vigilant about showering, washing under her arms, and using a deodorant. Just expect your child to forget to use it. "Smith would run out of deodorant and wouldn't tell us because it wasn't important to him. We had a couple of years of him just not using it, or us having to remind him to wash under his arms with soap and use the deodorant. I struggled with him for a long time as far as hygiene goes." But Talia's aunt gave her some wisdom that got her through the funk years: When he wants attention from girls, he'll remember every day, she said. Smith is 14 now—and Talia's aunt was right. He's got his own toiletry bag and an interest in a girl he met at school. Bye-bye, funkmaster. Hello, Romeo.
That night after the pediatrician told us to talk to Mari about The Change, Nick helped Lila take her bath alone so that I could chat with my baby girl as she took a bath in our bathroom. While she splashed around in the bubbles, I told her about her changing body—about boobies and periods, hair and curves, and cramps and PMS. I showed her my sanitary napkins and tampons, and told her about how scared I was when I got my first period, and how I wished I could have talked to my mom when it happened. And I assured her that no question she had on the subject was off-limits with me. She didn't say much—just nodded her head a bit and promised she'd come to me if she had questions. And then she went back to splashing around in her bubbles, happy to be my little girl, if only for a little while longer.
Denene Millner is on Parenting's Mom Squad and the author of 15 books, including What Goes Around: A Hotlanta Novel.