Adolescents, both male and female, experience a host of changes during their pre-teen and teen years. But for young ladies, puberty can be an especially trying time that deserves the attention and compassion of a parent, caregiver, or other trusted adult to help guide them through these formative years. If you have a female loved one around this age in your life, read more about how to best help her handle this stage.
Between the ages of 8 and 13, most young girls begin to experience major, sometimes unsettling changes to their bodies. They grow taller, gain weight, develop breasts, grow underarm and pubic hair, and their oil and sweat glands go into overdrive, causing body odor and sometimes acne. The hormonal changes can make them feel like they’ve lost control of their bodies, and they can also experience mood swings. With all of these changes, it’s no surprise that 25 percent of growth happens during puberty.
During this time, young women may also begin menstruating. Since it’s generally not regular at the beginning, it can be an unwelcome surprise at school or in social situations. Coupled with physical and emotional changes, like cramping and shifts in appetite, as well as the aforementioned mood swings, menstruation can be a less than welcome rite of passage.
What can you do to help?
- If other girls are beginning to experience these changes but your loved one is not, gently remind her that everyone’s bodies develop differently. Overhearing conversations on the bus or in the locker room that they can’t be a part of yet may be frustrating or embarrassing, but assure them that their time will come.
- Talk about the importance of good hygiene. Showering every day and after sports practices or games may now be necessary, as well as shaving newly developed body hair. Introduce deodorant or antiperspirant and using it daily to control body odor. If your loved one has developed acne, take her to a dermatologist to assess it. Some can be treated with over-the-counter medications, but others may require stronger topical or oral solutions.
- When your loved one begins menstruating, have a conversation about the options to address it. Present the options of using pads or tampons, and be sure to educate her on proper use, such as regularly changing these items. Remind her that although it’s unpleasant, it does and will happen for all of her female friends, too, so she’s not alone.
Talking about Sex
Along with the emotional and physical changes of puberty naturally comes the topic of sex and relationships. Curiosity about one’s body evolves into curiosity about others’, which then leads to experimentation. The pressures pre-teens and teens face today are nothing like they used to be, with social media filled with sexuality constantly in their faces, no way of shutting it off. Unplanned pregnancy is still a cause for concern, but with the increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in teenagers, there are now many other complicating matters to consider.
What can you do to help?
- Make sure your loved one schedules an adolescent well-visit each year. If your loved one participates in a school sport, they may receive a sports physical through their school (also known as a pre-participation evaluation), but it is NOT the same as a regular physical, nor should it take the place of an annual exam with their PCP. The doctor will also likely take a full sexual history, which your loved one may not want to discuss in front of you. In order to maximize the effectiveness of this visit, leave the room during this conversation.
- Make talking about sex a priority. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. If you suspect your loved one is sexually active, make sure they are using a condom with their partner each and every time, or schedule a visit with their doctor to discuss contraceptives.
- Be direct, and ask if your loved one suspects they may have been exposed to a STI. Cases of chlamydia, for example, are on the rise; 1.4 million cases of chlamydia were reported in 2014 —the highest number of annual cases of any condition ever reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Chlamydia can cause permanent damage in young women, such as ectopic pregnancy and even infertility. The screening is a simple urine test administered in a doctor’s office as part of a physical or annual well-visit. Again, if you’re attending a physical with your loved one, leave the room to allow for the doctor to ask more personal questions. If your loved one tests positive for chlamydia, treatment is a round of antibiotics and abstaining from sexual activity for at least seven days.
- Talk to your loved one’s doctor about administering the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine at age 11 or 12. HPV has the potential to turn into cervical cancer in women, and can also cause other genital cancers in both sexes. Getting this shot is one more step toward keeping your loved one safe.
Trying Alcohol, Smoking, or Drugs
Peer pressure can be a very difficult thing to avoid as an adolescent, particularly when it comes to experimenting with drinking, smoking, or using drugs. The heroin epidemic in upstate New York has grown to be just that – an epidemic, often with tragic endings after using the drug even once. Pre-teens and teens may also experiment with drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes at parties or social gatherings without adult supervision. Trying to cope with all of the aforementioned changes to a young girl’s body and emotions may make escapes like drinking, smoking, or doing drugs seem appealing, coupled with the ever-increasing need to feel cool or fit in.
What can you do to help?
- Advise your loved one that drinking alcohol or using drugs, even once, can have devastating consequences in the form of car crashes or overdoses, leading to serious injury or death.
- Ask as many questions as possible about your loved one’s whereabouts, supervision, and offer rides any time, day or night, if they find themselves in a situation they need to leave.
- If your loved one plays sports or is part of a team or organization that has a strict no drinking, smoking, or drugs policy, remind them that their participation could be in serious jeopardy if they break this pledge.
CDPHP® resources are available to assist with adolescent health and wellness. Exercise is also a great way to mitigate some of the negative effects associated with puberty, so check out the free community wellness classes we offer. If you are a CDPHP member and suspect your loved one is having an especially difficult time handling these changes, or has succumbed to the pressure of substance use, our Behavioral Health Access Center may be able to help.