As your daughter gets older, before she even starts puberty, you may notice that she's showing an interest or curiosity in her body. That's okay. Encourage her to ask questions or start a conversation to find out what and how much she knows—and gauge what and how much to tell her.
Teaching your daughter about her body should be an open, honest and continuous conversation, starting at an early age, says Dr. Rebecca Unger, pediatrician at Northwestern Children's Practice and the Wellness and Weight Management Clinic at Lurie Children's Hospital. And the talking doesn't have to be between females; dads and other male caretakers can be responsible, trustworthy resources, too.
"The most important thing is spending time together and keeping an open line of communication," says Dr. Unger. "Studies have shown that family meals reduce risk-taking behaviors in adolescents, and it's never too early to start."
It's natural to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or unqualified to talk with your daughter about her body. But she's going to get answers from somewhere, so it's up to you to make sure the information she's getting is factual and complete. Take opportunities to help your daughter understand your family's perspective and values, so she can shape her own.
"Many parents feel uncomfortable because they don't know where to start, what to talk about and how to address sensitive topics," says Dr. Unger. "Parents may lack information they need to provide helpful, accurate advice, and they may feel unsure about how much detail to provide."
To help you feel more confident in talking with your daughter, here's a list of nine things to teach her about her body:
1. Bodies come in different shapes and sizes
But rather than talking about your daughter's physical appearance and weight, focus on her health. She'll get enough exposure to critical and unrealistic attitudes on body image from the media. If you obsess over the body—hers or your own—your daughter will pick up on it and develop the same obsession. Instead, encourage and support her by providing positive feedback on things that have nothing to do with her body.
2. Be active and try new things
But don't force your daughter to do or keep doing anything. The body is great for many things: laughing, playing sports, dancing, standing, thinking, learning and more. Rather than focusing on her weight, encourage your daughter to keep active because of how it makes her feel or the friends she makes.
3. Take care of it, from head—and brain—to toe
"Adopt healthy eating habits, be active, and get enough sleep," says Dr. Unger. "Encourage your daughter to eat three regular meals and two healthy snacks, five fruits and vegetables per day, and limit the sugary beverages she drinks." Personal hygiene and safety is important, too.
4. How it works
"The body is beautiful, but sometimes noises and smells come from it," says Missy Lavender, founder and executive director of Women's Health Foundation and co-author of "Below Your Belt: How to be Queen of your Pelvic Region." Teaching your daughter about the different—and normal—parts and functions of the body, such as the vagina, pelvic region and bladder, will help her feel more comfortable and confident with her body. You can be general and abstract at this age, but use anatomically correct terms to avoid confusion.
5. Change and puberty
You want to prepare your daughter for what to expect before changes to her body happen. "Helping young girls, in a developmentally appropriate way, understand the predictable changes their bodies are about to go through can ease the road ahead," says Dr. Unger. In particular, reproductive health and menstruation are important health topics for your daughter. "Understanding the changes her body is going through will help your daughter feel less embarrassed or ashamed," Lavender says.
6. Sex and sexuality
Teach your daughter how to respect herself and her body, and talk about sex in the context of a loving, healthy relationship. "Children are learning about sex from the very start, just watching the people around them," Lavender says. "Rather than focusing on the act of sex, you can lay the groundwork for a healthy attitude about her body and the importance of sharing it with someone who cares for and respects her when she is older."
7. Privacy in person and online
While you should respect your daughter's privacy, you should also be aware of what's going on with her—physically and socially. In terms she understands, teach her what social media responsibility means: that anything posted online, including pictures of and information about herself, is available for anyone, any time to see. Join her while she's on social media, so you know who she's interacting with and what she's posting, and limit her screen time.
8. Care for and protect yourself
"Teach your daughters how to get help from adults they trust if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable," Dr. Unger says. "For example, they should know who and how to tell adults they trust if they are bullied, and they should feel comfortable saying 'no' when appropriate."
9. Respect others and be a kind person
In the same way you want your daughter to be positive about her own body image, teach her to see the inner beauty and accept the uniqueness of others. "It's the age-old Golden Rule," Dr. Unger says. "Essentially, help your daughter understand the importance of treating others the way she wants to be treated by others."
To help you teach your daughter about her body, there are a number of great resources available, from her pediatrician and teachers to books and websites, such as Kids Health. Try leaving an age-appropriate book on her bed and watch how she reacts. Being actively involved with her life and paying attention to her will help make talking with her about topics, such as her body, feel more natural and easier.