A Parent's Guide to Surviving Puberty

From first bra to first period, a mom shares her misadventures with puberty milestones, and how you can handle them better.

1 of 7

Breast Friends


After trying to pass off short undershirts as bras (ha!), I let my daughter, Annie*, then 12, pick out five teeny bras, still too big. Days later she smuggled another bunch into daddy's cart at Target. She now has three times as many bras as I do, yet is about as chesty as our Chihuahua-daschund mix.

*Name has been changed.

Puberty Reality Beg though she may for the latest from Aerie, experts say Annie doesn't need a bra for support until there's substantive breast tissue, like a B cup. However, "some girls are very embarrassed about their nipple and areola, which poke out first, being seen. Bras are not just for support—they provide modesty," explains Judith Simms-Cendan, MD, adolescent gynecologist at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, FL. "It's not harmful to start wearing them early." A recent study found that almost half of girls ages 11 to 18 reported their breasts had some effect on their participation in sports. So if your tween is athletic, keep the healthy habit going by buying a few supportive sports bras (look for wide straps) sooner rather than later. Developing breasts can become tender and even chafed, so a sports emollient, such as Body Glide or Ruby's Lube (an all-natural balm), can help reduce friction.

2 of 7

Eau de Tween


My daughter was 10 when I caught a whiff of what I at first thought was our algae-clogged fish tank. Ten! Afraid of her using antiperspirant at a young age, I doused her with baby powder every day for over a year. Now I buy her natural deodorant, and she uses my antiperspirant when I'm not looking.

Purberty Reality "One of the earliest signs of pubertal development is body odor," says Simms-Cendan, who is also cochair of the Education Committee of the North American Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology. "Even before breasts start to develop, hormones from the adrenal glands increase sweat production and mix with bacteria on the skin to cause body odor." It's fine for a 10-year-old to use antiperspirant with the common silica-aluminum formulation."The silica-aluminum is not systemically absorbed," explains Simms-Cendan. If you're concerned about chemical exposure, try aluminum-free deodorants such as Lavanila's The Healthy Deodorant and Kiss My Face Smooth Deo.

3 of 7

Hair Apparent


My part-Italian, part-Greek girl asked to shave her legs at 11. I held her off until her 12th birthday, for no reason other than it made me feel better. I'm debating how young is too young to get her brows and upper lip waxed, since she's starting to look a bit like Frida Kahlo.

Puberty Reality If we're reluctant to let our girls shave because it means they're growing up, that's understandable. But there are no legitimate skin-care concerns to back us up. "All types of hair removal—shaving, waxing, depilatories, laser hair removal, sugaring and threading—are safe for preteens," insists Jacqueline F. De Luca, MD, a dermatologist at Laser Skin Care Center in Long Beach, CA. Shaving is usually the first line of defense for legs, given how cheap and easy it is. Waxing is a longer-lasting option for her face, but make sure she knows it's going to hurt. One caution regarding any process that pulls out the entire hair (such as waxing, plucking, sugaring and threading): Your daughter should avoid it if she's using any topical acne medications, which can make skin more sensitive.

4 of 7

Moody Blues


Annie started playing a "You're so annoying I'm sorry why do you hate me?" loop that ended in sobbing at age 11. I ignore it (read: let her get away with too much) and pass the baton to her dad when she's "in a mood."

Puberty Reality You're not the only one who's sad that your daughter isn't a little girl anymore. "Tweens feel childhood slipping away," explains Cynthia D. Baker,PhD, a child psychologist in Newport Beach, CA. School is a lot harder. They have more responsibilities at home. Santa Claus and the tooth fairy have vaporized. At the same time, they're getting anxious (though mostly unconsciously, notes Baker) about growing up. "Girls this age may wake up crying in the middle of the night but have no idea why, or sob over minor things," says Baker. Showing empathy is the best approach. Try saying, "I'm sorry you're feeling sad. Do you know what's bothering you?" If she doesn't, simply remind her you're around if she thinks of anything she'd like to share. "Knowing she has a safe and secure relationship with a parent who is there to talk to will go a long way," says Baker. Talking back and eye rolling are also common at this age. While it's okay for her to feel angry, you need to explain why it's not okay to be disrespectful. As hard as it is, don't respond with yelling or harsh punishments with no warning. Instead, state clear expectations and calmly ask to be treated respectfully. "Staying cool will help this phase pass more quickly," says Baker.

5 of 7

Blemishing Beauty


Helping Annie deal with breakouts stumped me. I hated to put the heavy-duty stuff on her so-soft skin. So I do what my mother did: I put toothpaste on her pimples. She hates it. It sort of works.

Puberty Reality The dual goal of clearing breakouts and preventing things from getting worse can be handled by an over-the-counter face wash containing salicylic acid, glycolic acid or benzoyl peroxide. All three treat the blocked follicles that trigger acne and can help reduce bacteria, says DeLuca. If this type of product is too drying, use a fragrance-free, non-comedogenic moisturizer after washing. If that's still too drying, a gentle face wash with none of the above ingredients is another option, but it won't be as beneficial for preventing acne. In any case, urge her to wash just twice a day—three if she plays sports, making sure to lather up immediately after practice.

6 of 7

First Period


I had heard of 9-year-olds getting their periods, so Annie's been packing a pad since fourth grade. Here she is, 12 years and 6 months, and still nothing. Every time she yells my name, I rush in, thinking, "This is it!" She's getting prickly with all my hovering.

Puberty Reality "The onset of breast development to the time of a girl's first period is approximately two years," says Simms-Cendan. "Typically, if she has no breast development yet, she will not have a period. And if a girl is stressed or very athletic, the onset of menses can be delayed." Another good predictor is the age at which you got your period. (Aha! Annie's breasts have only just started budding, and I got my period at 13.) For those of you who are wondering how young—gulp—is too young for a tampon, don't worry. "No age is too young," says Simms-Cendan. She reports that some patients still think it will make a girl lose her virginity. "It absolutely does not," she states. "In general, they are safe to use." While your daughter shouldn't try a tampon for the first time when she's in a rush, there's no reason to make her skip the seventh-grade pool party rather than use one. Just make sure she understands that to prevent toxic shock syndrome she needs to change it every six to eight hours and switch to a pad at bedtime. No surprise: Technology is also trying to ease the transition for our daughters. For example, the Period Tracker app (iOS, free) has cute icons that can tip her off to days she'll need to have maxi pads on hand and provides seriously helpful info, like when she'll start to feel cranky and why. There are also websites like Helloflo.com, which offers commiseration for all things period as well as Period Starter Kits for purchase. Too bad no one's thought of marketing products to support us moms who are trying to help our daughters through this rite of passage . . . yet.

7 of 7

Starter Picks


Expert suggestions for making puberty a smoother transition:

First-time wearers will love Yellowberry's colorful choices, including the comfy Chickadee Seamless Bra (yellowberry company.com, $28), that are designed specifically for girls.

If acne fighters dry her skin, add a non-comedogenic, fragrance-free moisturizer like Neutrogena Oil-Free Moisture ($11) to her routine.

Your kid can choose her favorite scent from among 14 different skin-softening Dove Advanced Care Anti-PerspirantDeodorants ($6.50).

Make your daughter's initial shave burn- and nick-free with the Gillette Venus & Olay Razor ($11.50), which has built-in moisturizers.

Got more puberty questions answered!