Dear Dr. Markham,
My wonderful 11-year-old daughter is entering a difficult time and I want to know how best to help her. She's begun to hit puberty and is seeming sad and angry and confused by it. Physically, she's still in the beginning stages... she has breast buds, a few pimples and occasional hormonally-fueled mood swings. I don't see her getting her period for another year or so. Socially and emotionally, she's being thrust into a world she's not ready for... she's beginning to hear her classmates talking about exploration of their budding sexuality (in the form of crushes, kisses, etc.). She has several times bemoaned these changes and said she longs to go back to a simpler time. All of this seems very natural to me.
However, recently she's begun to feel very disturbed, and even traumatized, by all of this. For example, she recently stumbled across a section in an age-appropriate chapter book she was reading which included a teenage kissing-scene, and she promptly handed the book to me and tearfully asked me to keep it out of her sight until she's older. She also played a video game at a friends' house that depicted the implied (not actually seen) lovemaking of two characters, and tearfully told me how disturbed and haunted she was by the image. And when I talked with her recently about what it will be like when she gets her period, she burst into tears and ran into her room, shutting down and shutting me out.
I've been talking with her about puberty and adolescence for the last few years, and have gotten her all sorts of great books about it. When she was 8 and 9 and 10, she was delighted and curious about it, and we had great, open conversations about it. Now, it seems like such a source of pain to her, and I need to know how to help her through this. I know she'll be fine in the end, but how do I help her now?
I think part of the problem is she has limited access to me, her female guide to all of this. I share custody of her with her father, my ex-husband, and I only see her half of each week. It seems that just when we've begun a great conversation and rhythm, it's interrupted by the visitation schedule -- and she won't talk to her dad about this. My husband is wondering if she's more sensitive to this because she has very little exposure to media (we have no television and limit computer screen time at our house -- she does watch some television at her dad's house, but mostly sports). She's also been through a lot of change in the last few years (divorce when she was 2, moves, my remarriage when she was 9) and there may be still more coming up (entering middle school next year, another possible move, a possible baby brother or sister) and I worry that's impacting her ability to contend with the change she's experiencing in her own body and place in the world.
I dearly wish there were some sort of ritual in our culture that would acknowledge her initiation into this world! I've heard of moms holding a special tea or other celebration when a girl gets her first period or turns 12 or 13, but my daughter has told me this would be "mortifying" to her.
How can I ease this transition for her? How can I help her with her fear and pain, and at the same time show her how to honor and celebrate what's happening?
Many thanks for sharing your wisdom!
What an important and rich question you're asking!
I agree with you that your daughter's reactions are completely within the range of normal.
Preteen girls often harbor great anxiety about adolescence. One study found that tween boys looked forward to adolescence and the strength, power, independence and prestige they would develop. Tween girls, on the other hand, dreaded adolescence, fearing menstruation, their new vulnerability to men, and the pressure to be sexy and attractive. Most girls don’t know how to put these anxieties into words, but they feel them.
I think when girls have a lot of media exposure, this anxiety is counter-balanced by the desire to be the young woman presented on the screen: sexy, gorgeous, powerful, sophisticated and desired. Or even just to "fit in." Meaning, girls might be anxious inside about growing up, but they often deal with that anxiety by trying to grow up too fast. They beg to wear skimpy outfits so they’ll be “cool” even while they're completely not ready to handle the attention that goes with that. And they start fights with their parents to distance and drown their own aching need to be little girls who feel safe and protected.
So I agree with your husband that if she had more exposure to media, she might be a bit more excited about adolescence, which is presented as such a desirable time. But that doesn't sound like a good solution. While media exposure normalizes our warped view of teenage girls, and therefore gets girls excited about being sexy and attractive, it also undermines their confidence and is associated with eating disorders and negative self image.
So, your daughter is frightened of adolescence. She has the wisdom to know that she isn’t ready for the attention her changing body will bring. She knows that she's leaving the safety of childhood behind. She's a wise child.
But what she doesn't know yet is the exhilaration of stepping into her own strength. The excitement of discovering new worlds. The freedom of making her own decisions. Is there a way you can help her begin to discover these things?
I agree that a ritual is desirable and I completely understand her embarrassment at the idea of being public. Maybe you and she can design your own ritual. I think there is tremendous value in stories. For instance:
You work together to create a ritual Treasure Box in which she will remember everything about right now, age 11. She immortalizes this moment. She writes a letter to herself that lists everything she loves, and everything she wants to remember, and everything she is looking forward to. Her favorite books, friends, activities. She adds things that she is frightened of in the future, with the hope that by the time she reads this again she will no longer feel frightened. She decorates her box. Then you put it safely away, hidden, where no one will find it. You could even put it in a small plastic bin and bury it in your back yard and mark the spot with a little fairy statue as a guardian. You agree that when she has her first period you will open/dig the box up.
When she gets her first period, you wait until it is over. Then, she takes a hot bath with rose petals. You celebrate that she has not only survived this major life event, but that she has flourished. She is still the girl she was at 11, but even richer and deeper inside. You open/dig up the Treasure Box. She reads it and recognizes herself. Like an anchor, stabilizing her. She sees that she has changed and grown but is still very much the same. She adds a new layer -- maybe a new letter and some rose petals. She buries the box again. Under a full moon?
You agree that it can be recovered any time she feels the need, but certainly on her 16th birthday.
What do you think?
I want to add four thoughts.
1. Some of your daughter's anxiety about crushes and kisses may come from her concern about your divorce. She may worry about her ability to love without it resulting in heartbreak. She needs to talk about this and have you listen, and have you point out that she is more equipped to love happily than you were. Any opportunity for discussions about successful relationships will be helpful to her.
2. The way to help our child with difficult feelings is always to listen, and to give them a chance to cry. If your daughter has meltdowns over anything (and I recall this age as having meltdowns over even small things), greet them with compassion. If you feel attacked, bite your tongue. Say "Ouch! You must be really upset to yell at me like that...What's going on, Sweetie?" Let her collapse in tears and sob. Your daughter may not be able to articulate her anxieties, but she still needs to express them. You are listening to those feelings even when no words are said. So welcome her tears, and create every opportunity to giggle, which also helps kids express anxiety. Pillow fights, silly jokes, roughhousing.
3. Girls this age need to find their power, hopefully inside themselves rather than in making themselves fit some stereotype of "sexy power" that isn't really powerful at all because it is in the eyes of the culture and never attainable. The more they are physical, the better. It isn't the only form of power, but it is one of the most effective. Martial arts, tennis, swimming, soccer, yoga, and even simply hiking all release anxiety and build self-confidence. If she doesn't have a physical outlet, help her find one.
4. Your intuition that your daughter's anxiety stems partly from being separated from you for half the week seems right on target to me. Imagine being 11 and knowing that you could wake up bleeding at any time. (And who knows how accurate your projected timetable is? It really could be tomorrow, although it might well be at age 13. There is no way of knowing.) How would she explain that to her father? If she really won't talk to him about these issues, then she needs your help to make a plan. She needs sanitary supplies at her dad's house. She needs to be able to call you for help on the phone. She might even need to come back to you early that week and you could reassure her that her dad will always let her come back early, for no reason at all, if she really needs to. She needs your reassurance that this would not be a major crisis, but only a very small bump that you can help her plan for and get through.
You're a wonderful mom to be thinking about these issues. You're completely right that she'll be fine in the end, and more so because of your help now. I wish you luck in supporting your daughter through this challenging time.
Dear Dr. Markham,
Thank you so much for this wonderful reply! I'm so sorry for my late thank you to you... I read this a few days ago and have been wanting to respond, but have been dealing with a medical emergency (I had an ectopic pregnancy). I'm just home from the hospital today, and once I'm settled in I'd like to read your note with greater attention and send you a proper reply. For now, I just wanted to send a quick thank you. I'm looking forward to reading / thinking through your wonderful ideas and guidance.
Thank you for your kind reply and for your wonderful post about helping my daughter! I truly appreciate the thought, care and wisdom you put into this, and I'm excited to try some of these lovely ideas. I think my daughter will really embrace the idea of the Treasure Box especially!
Your additional thoughts at the end feel right on target to me. Thankfully, my daughter does have physical ways to feel powerful (she's involved in two sports), and we've recently started talking about "sexy power" and many other of the issues you bring up. Our communication has been great lately. Thank you so much for your guidance in helping me to gather some tools and ideas for creating a peaceful and well-supported transition for her.