How to Avoid Sharks, and other important lessons to help your pre-teen daughter survive puberty
I grew up in a girl-centered household. With only one sister and a single mother, conversations about periods, puberty, cramps, boys and bras were natural. Now that I have two teenage daughters of my own - one well on the downward slope of her teen years and one just getting started - there’s an overabundance of estrogen and all things female in my house (which may or may not explain my husband’s fondness for Jägermeister).
Over the past six years I’ve learned that having pre-teen daughters can be both delightful (sharing clothes! shopping trips! rom-com movies!) and prove to be a challenge (hormones, 'nuff said … and could you please pass the Jäger?). And as they've grown I've also come to realize that it's our job as parents to teach them things far more important than how to give mama a pedicure or how to french-braid their own hair.
As our daughters get older, there are a few things that are vital for them to know so they don’t leave the house looking like a Yeti, smelling like a dead rodent, or even worse, running the risk of being eaten by a shark. And whether they like it or not, you need to be there to guide them through the murky — and sometimes shark infested — waters.
aSo for those of you with young girls, take note. For those of you with sons, stop laughing. Despite what you might think, you’re gonna have to wash sheets a lot more times than we will.
Legs: Around 5th grade your daughter’s little bare legs will start to look like she’s wearing Uggs.
All the time.
When either she becomes self-conscious of it or starts to trap mosquitoes and gnats, it’s time to buy the $2 Raspberry Shave Gel at Target and have a date with her on the side of the bathtub. Ditto for underarms.
Your mom didn’t let you shave until you were in 7th grade? I don’t care, and believe me, neither do the nasty girls in your daughter’s 5th grade class who are giggling behind her back. It’s not about peer pressure, don't get me wrong, but if shaving the inch of black fur off her legs is something that makes your daughter feel grown up and like part of the female pack? As difficult as it may be for you, it’s time to start letting her have a say in her own hygiene.
After all, it is her body.
Bikini Area: All girls are different, but after your daughter has started growing hair in places other than her head you can assume that when swimsuit season comes along she’s gonna need some crucial advice. And younger girls not only don’t think of shaving their bikini line, they are horrified when you tell them about it. It won’t be necessary right away, but trust me, you must step in and provide this vital lesson by the time your daughter is about 14 or 15-years-old so she doesn’t appear to be smuggling a Furby into the pool.
I did it by tossing my teenager a razor, some shaving gel and a tube of Bikini Zone and talking her through it - step by step - through the closed bathroom door, after I’d given her a quick demonstration by wearing my swimsuit bottoms and pantomiming the entire process. Was that awkward, you ask? Not at all, and it also proved that I’d kill if I ever get the card “shaving bikini line” in a game of charades.
There’s a good chance you’ll realize it’s time for your daughter to upgrade from the thin cotton undershirt-looking “bra” covered in comical monkey faces from Justice® way before she does. Let me put it this way: If it starts to look like her shirt was hung on the drying rack by two clothespins right at her chest line, it's time to go real bra shopping.
Make it fun. Go to lunch! Find cute, colorful bras that fit. Buy one for yourself while you're at it! Turn it into a real girls' day.
And when she makes you keep your eyes trained on the floor the whole time you're in the dressing room with her (if she'll even let you in), do it. Don't sneak a peek. Respect her privacy, adjust the straps, and try very hard not to cry over the fact that she already has bigger boobs than you do.
Periods, cramps and feminine products
Talking to your daughter about these things well before she actually gets her period is certainly helpful and makes it a lot less stressful on her when it actually happens, for both of you.
Months before the red badge of courage actually appears, make sure to introduce something that will quickly become her new BFF: the pantyliner. Listen, without offering up TMI, if you’re a female in her fertile years you know that there’s a lot more than five days a month when you need a little extra help keeping those panties dry. Talk to your pre-teen about this. Ask her if she sometimes feels like a human Elmer’s Glue dispenser, tell her it's normal, and then throw her a pack of pantyliners and tell her not to be stingy with them. Teach her the finer art of washing out her panties when needed. Believe me, that will be a necessary skill to have in the coming years.
When the pre-period cramps begin, offer Advil, chocolate and a lot of sympathy. And when good ol' Aunt Flo finally arrives for the very first time, be positive! Do not lament the pain she’s in for for the next 40 years or tell her horror stories of the time you were wearing white shorts at school and your period came unexpectedly. Just lie about how wonderful it is, take her out to a celebratory dinner (“Let’s toast to your fertility!”) and let a day or two pass before you begin using phrases like, "A firecracker in my uterus would hurt less" or "Kill me now."
Something that causes a lot of anxiety in pre-teen girls is the million-dollar decision of whether to use pads or tampons. Let me offer my advice. Unless you’re about to take a beach/snorkeling vacation (like we were) and don’t want your daughter to get eaten by a shark, I’d stick with the pad option the first time. Sure, it feels like a diaper (or a "saddle" as my daughter put it), but there are enough emotions she'll be dealing with that first time without having to tackle the shock and awe of inserting a tampon.
But when it comes time for that, through her decision (or in our case, the shark's), it's time once again for a fun game of puberty charades. No matter how horrified your daughter looks as you pantomime the various ways to get that sucker in (one leg on tub, lying on back, etc), stick with it. Trust me, through the eye-rolls and the groans and the occasional running out of the room, she's watching, learning, and will be damn glad for your honesty — and your mad charades skills — when that bathroom door is closed.
When you've thoroughly grossed her out and she musters up the courage to try it herself, show her how the little sucker works (yes, it's OK to waste one, or two, or three) and give her privacy. When/if her attempts are a failure, just encourage her to give it another shot the next day or the next month. And give her a hug (if she'll let you). That's some major shit she's just gone through.
Midol, Advil, heating pads, washing out those damn spots, what to flush vs. what not to flush, regularly taking out the bathroom garbage and of course, eating copious amounts of Cookie Dough Ice-Cream are all things you’ll need to share and advise on the first few years after your daughter starts riding the crimson wave -- with a healthy dose of sensitivity ... and humor.
Blackheads, pimples and acne
Around the same time all of the above is happening, your daughter's smooth, peaches-n-cream complexion will suddenly give way to clusters of blackheads so ripe you may confuse them with whiskers, and pimples that make you take back every wish you've ever made to be a kid again.
While it's certainly true that one mark of true adolescence is a red polka-dotted face, it doesn't have to be an accepted norm if it gets out of hand. A breakout here and there? Of course. And while it can be tempting, resist the urge to actually show her how to pop that white-capped zit on her nose ... by actually attempting to pop it on her nose. Trust me on this one.
If a regular practice of face-washing with a good scrub isn't working (sidenote: buy her a good face scrub and show her how to use it) and the normal monthly breakout crosses the line to full-blown acne, it's time to seek outside help from a dermatologist.
Listen, we are the first ones to teach our kids that "it isn't the way you look that matters but what is inside" and that people shouldn't be judged by their appearance, but there's no denying that it happens. And if your child's face (or in my daughter's case, her forehead, chest and shoulders) look like a swarm of mosquitoes set up camp there for a year, let's face it, her fantastic personality isn't the first thing that's getting noticed. If the acne begins to affect her confidence, it's time to get help — the whole "don't judge a book by its cover" thing be damned.
Surviving the pre-teen years with your daughter won't always be easy. But the bottom line is to talk about the changes they're going through, make them relatable, make them seem like no big deal (and maybe sometimes acknowledge that they are a very big deal), let them know they can come to you and ask questions or get advice, respect the times they don't want your advice, have patience, and above all, find ways to laugh about it.
Because really, there's a whole lot that's funny about sticking a bullet-shaped wad of cotton up your hoo-ha.
Next in the series: "Kissing frogs ain't the only way to get warts: Talking to your pre-teen daughter about sex and STDs."