What is puberty like for girls? – Making sense of puberty

Key takeaways for caregivers of young girls going through puberty:

  • Puberty is not a singular process, so girls’ feelings about each change will not be uniform. Parents can celebrate changes their daughters are excited about while also making space for negative feelings about other changes.
  • Girls who feel more prepared for menarche are less distressed by it. Parents can engage in multiple conversations with their daughters about practical information in handling menstruation, and also the feelings, physical pain, and social stigma associated with the change.
  • Girls who mature earlier than their peers seem to struggle to make sense of these changes in a way that increases their psychological distress. Parents can model how to draw helpful conclusions from the changes happening in girls’ lives to support their daughters’ emotional development.

Puberty is often viewed as an awkward transition for both parents and their daughters

In the first episode of My So-Called Life (a mid-1990s U.S. television series about the teen years), teenager Angela laments that “My dad and I used to be pretty tight. The sad truth is, my breasts have come between us.” Many parents and adolescents can relate to this sentiment.

Puberty brings with it many dramatic changes that are exciting and difficult, public and private, and dramatic and subtle for youth. When faced with these changes in their child, many parents may not know exactly what to say, so they defer to outside sources like physicians.

Parents should talk with their daughters to see how they feel about specific changes.

Since puberty is broadly considered the start of adolescence, it can be tempting to view the first major pubertal change as a cue that your daughter needs space and privacy because she will soon be a moody teenager. It is important that parents do not avoid such topics just because they are awkward. In fact, researchers have found that youth prefer their parents as their source for sensitive topics like sex education over other sources such as school, peers, or media.

But where should parents start when talking to their daughters about puberty? And how can they better help girls make sense of the changes happening to them? One way to answer these questions is to ask girls themselves how they feel about puberty.

What views about puberty do girls express when asked to write about the experience?

In a recent study, my co-author and I asked 10- to 13-year-old girls to describe their experiences of changes with their bodies, families, and friends during puberty. Over four consecutive days, girls wrote in journals for 20 minutes on a specific prompt related to change during puberty. After the four days of journaling, they responded to survey questions about their level of symptoms of depression, conflict with peers, and conflict with parents. They completed the same survey about four months later.

Girls may view puberty as both a positive and a negative experience

While puberty often carries negative connotations in pop culture, we found that writing about most physical changes, including breast development, was not related to negative outcomes in mood or relationship conflict. In their journaling, girls tended to voice multiple perspectives on the same issues.

parent supporting girl through puberty

Photo: Zen Chung. Pexels.

For example, when writing about relationship changes with youth their own age, one girl said she felt that her “relationship with kids my age did not really change, we just have our ups and downs sometimes.” In contrast, another girl wrote, “I have noticed that you can’t just be friends with boys. Other people, apparently, think you are dating if you hang with a boy. This makes friendships with boys extremely hard.”

Based on these findings, parents should talk with their daughters to see how they feel about specific changes rather than assuming which changes girls view positively or negatively.

Menstruation is uniquely stressful for girls; talking to them about it can help

In our study, girls were most distressed by menstruation. Girls who wrote about menstruation more than any other topic were more likely to report more symptoms of depression four months after the first survey, regardless of their level of physical development or the timing of puberty.

This is important because it means that girls did not simply write about menstruation because they experienced it and other girls did not, but that some girls fixated on menstruation in a way that may be maladaptive.

Menstruation is a unique change. In addition to being private and beginning all at once rather than gradually, it is a change that has monthly consequences for most girls that continue until menopause. Many girls wrote about feelings of isolation or helplessness around the idea of experiencing period pain or inconvenience for years to come. For example, one girl summed up this feeling by writing, “One of the only things I am not looking forward to during puberty while growing up is cramps.”

In our study, girls were most distressed by menstruation.

Given these findings, parents should talk through these feelings with girls and provide information about handling menstruation before girls begin menstruating. Researchers have found that girls who are well-informed about menstruation are less likely to be distressed by it. This may be because girls can replace misinformation or fears (e.g., “I will hurt all the time and I can’t stop it.”) with accurate information and potential solutions (e.g., “I can take pain medications for cramps.”).

Parents can help teens view puberty as a meaningful life transition

In addition to examining girls’ thoughts and feelings about individual changes, we also recorded each time girls demonstrated meaning making by searching for meaning or trying to make sense of the changes happening to them.

Sometimes this took on a negative tone when girls reflected on their helplessness (e.g., “Puberty is just something that happens to you and you have to go through it. It’s life.”). Other times, girls reflected on how changes in their lives might benefit them or others (e.g., “Going through puberty now means I’ll be better prepared to help my daughters in the future.”).

The more early-maturing girls engaged in making meaning, the more symptoms of depression they reported. Girls who mature earlier than their peers may struggle with meaning making that is positive or constructive, or at least that does not exacerbate psychological distress. This may be because early-maturing girls are among their first in their classes to start puberty, so they may have fewer examples or frames of reference to draw from when making sense of these changes.

Research with adults suggests that the more people engage in adaptive meaning making, the better their mood and well-being tend to be. However, children and adolescents tend to have a more difficult time generating such adaptive meaning making on their own. Adaptative meaning making may look like finding benefits in the situation, recognizing personal growth that has come out of the changes, or reappraising negative events in positive ways more generally. Parents can engage in scaffolding during conversations about changes or challenges with their children to help them practice better meaning making strategies.

parent supporting puberty

Photo: Karolina Grabowska. Pexels.

For example, parents may follow up a daughter’s statement that “wearing a sports bra sucks” by reframing the conclusion (e.g., “It may suck that you have to wear an additional piece of equipment, but your sports bra is no different than your cleats or racket. It is equipment that helps you preform safely.”). Alternatively, parents may use questions to guide their teens to elaborate or reframe the concept on their own (e.g., “What does the sports bra help you accomplish?”).

Research directions

Overall, our research suggests that girls are particularly distressed by menstruation when describing their experiences of change during puberty. They may also struggle to make meaning of the changes and challenges related to puberty in a way that can help them cope with this transition.

While it can be difficult or awkward for parents to know what to say, our findings suggest that parents can support their daughters during puberty by engaging in more and frequent conversations about pubertal change. However, researchers need to examine how parents’ conversations about particular topics directly influence girls’ adaptive meaning making about pubertal changes.

We also need research to determine how these results apply to other groups’ experiences with puberty, such as boys and adolescents from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Adolescents from different backgrounds may focus on different experiences and concerns, and these may map differently onto teens’ psychological difficulties.

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