How to Be Empathetic to Teenage Girls’ Physical and Emotional Changes
Puberty is hard, and Mom and Dad don't need to make it any harder.
Puberty is a hard, weird time for teenage girls. But parental fears about the hormonal, emotional, and physical changes that will hit their daughter may be slightly overblown. Raising a teen girl is made easier by good communication. But it also helps if parents manage expectations and try not to take their daughter’s behavior personally. Approaching discussions about puberty with empathy is key.
Jill Whitney, a marriage and family therapist with KeepTheTalkGoing.com, works with girls going through puberty. She wants parents to understand one crucial thing: Puberty is a phase, and it feels lonely and difficult for young girls in particular.
“Kids kind of feel like they’re the only one who has ever been through any of this, even though intellectually, they know that’s not true,” says Whitney. But she notes parents can combat those feelings of isolation by preparing children as early as prudently possible. Books, for instance, can help — at least for providing information about the physical changes of puberty.
How to Be Empathetic During Teen Girl Puberty
- Get your kid a good, technical, and informational book about all the stages of puberty and tell her to read it on her own time and ask her about it if she wants.
- Acknowledge that puberty is weird and uncomfortable without demanding a response or for her to open up.
- Talk about your own awful puberty experiences to commiserate.
- Don’t withdraw at the first sign of physical and emotional changes. Daughters need a dad more than ever.
- If you’re a single parent, offer your daughter resources in the form of older women who can get technical with them about tampons, bodily changes, and more.
- Take your ego out of it, and recognize that even at their meanest, puberty is just a phase and your daughter will like you again soon.
“A good book really explains what all of the stages of puberty are: what breast buds are, when pubic hair comes in, all that stuff that’s awkward to talk about with your kid,” says Whitney. “But she needs to know. So get her the book and say, ‘This is really important.’ ”
But it’s not just about tossing a book in your daughter’s room like a grenade and running away. Parents need to be explicit about their availability for any questions that might come up after their daughters have been given access to good information.
Parents can also help kids understand that they get it, by talking about puberty in a way that doesn’t demand their children respond to them. “Our job as a parent is to normalize that everybody goes through this and it’s really weird,” explains Whitney. She suggests that parents offer simple observation like, “Puberty is so weird. Some people start so early and they’re excited about it, and some people start late. And some people hate being late bloomers, and some people hate going through puberty.”
By throwing out a statement that puberty is a hot mess, and maybe even offering personal anecdotes — parents remind daughters they’ve been through it too. “That lightbulb goes off for kids like, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s been through this. He does know about it,’ ” Whitney says.
Dads might have the natural tendency to withdraw from their daughters during the first signs of puberty, Whitney warns. It’s all a part of dads recognizing for the first time that their daughters are different than them and that they might not really know what their daughter is going through in a nuts-and-bolts sense. But dads need to fight the urge to pull back because while their daughter is going through a wildly confusing time, the last thing they need to lose is their dad.
“I do research with girls and some of them remember that their dad just disappeared and got cold,” Whitney says. “It’s so sad, and they’re sad even years later, because it hurts. The challenge for dads, especially, is to stay engaged and affectionate. You might be more mindful of how you touch her, but you want to listen to her signals.”
For single or gay dads who might not know the mechanics of how to use feminine hygiene products or have a wife to explain that to them, it’s valuable to provide their daughter with options for resources — like an aunt, a cousin, or a family friend. It’s definitely okay to recognize where your knowledge might be lacking.
The most important part about being a supportive parent during a teen girl’s journey through puberty, though, is that parents need to accept that their kids might just be mean to them sometimes. The upshot? Get over it.
“Their emotions amp up before the cognitive thinking and delayed-gratification parts of their brain are fully developed. They are really feeling those feelings. It’s not that they’re dramatic. The drama is because they really, deeply feel,” says Whitney.
Expect that kids will rebuff your attempts to connect, lash out at parents, and sometimes be rude. It’s not going to be 24/7 and it’s also not going to last forever, explains Whitney. “Get your ego out of it and just know this is par for the course. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you or that she will always say no. And sometimes, she’ll say yes.”
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