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When little girls start growing up

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / September 9, 1993

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If you are the parents of a daughter who is just starting middle school or junior high, brace yourself.

Suddenly, your little girl may be spending hours in front of the mirror, experimenting with clothes, hairdos and makeup. Hours more may be spent on the telephone or reading Seventeen magazine. And she may have a new set of worries: I'm getting fat! I'm not popular! Things she once worried about -- grades, extracurricular activities, cleaning her room -- no longer seem to matter.

Few among us are eager to relinquish the image of our little girl as a little girl. That you need to do so when your daughter is as young as 10 or 11 can be downright scary. "No parent is ever ready," sympathizes psychiatrist Paul Kettl, an associate professor at Penn State University.

Acknowledging the changes, however -- and arming yourself with information -- can help a lot, according to psychologist Jill Rierdan, a professor and researcher at UMass-Boston.

She says most parents pay too little attention to changes in their 9- or 10-year-old daughter because they think early adolescence doesn't begin until the onset of menstruation.

"Not so. Menstruation signals the end of early adolescence," she explains. "It's one of the last changes in the body," typically coming two years after the first changes -- breast development, a height spurt and a fat spurt. They typically occur at about 9 or 10.

But what's this about a fat spurt?

"It's a normal part of development, an increase in body fat," Rierdan says.

But because most parents don't expect it, they start to worry about a weight gain and even encourage diets. Unwittingly, says Rierdan, they feed into a girl's burgeoning negative body image.

While a 10-, 11-, or 12-year-old's preoccupation with weight and diets does not mean she is heading for an eating disorder, Rierdan urges parents to redirect their daughter's focus to health, nutrition and body competence. For instance:

"When she tells you, 'I'm too fat,' come back with, 'It's not that you're fat, just that your body is changing. If you're worried about it, let's make sure you are eating foods that are healthy and nutritious and not adding empty calories.' "

What's perhaps most unfortunate about these body changes is that they often coincide with a change in schools. Studies show that girls who go through puberty before or at the same time that they change schools have poor self-esteem, poor body image and are prone to depression, according to psychologist Anne Petersen, a professor of adolescent development and pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. Her area of research is preteen girls.

For instance, exercise is one way to deal with the increase in body fat. But the new school, with a locker room and showers, brings on an age- appropriate embarrassment: "They don't want other girls to see them naked," says Petersen. Even a girl who has been athletic may need your support stay with it, perhaps to pursue sports activities independent of the school.

Some parents get into trouble by buying into the stereotype of the difficult preteen.

"It's not that this isn't a difficult child to parent. It is," says Petersen who, like many other professionals, likens ages 9 to 13 to the ''terrible twos," when a child is equally unpredictable -- clingy one minute, independent the next. At both ages, parents never know what to expect.

But just as you can't ignore mood swings in a 2-year-old, you need to cope with them in the 10- or 12-year-old. Problems come, Petersen says, when parents become convinced they won't be able to influence their child. Instead of making the effort, they withdraw.

She tells parents that what works best with preteen girls is a parenting style that is firm, warm and supportive. Social psychologist Allena Elovson, whose specialty is parent-child relationships, gives an example:

"A girl with a small pimple on her face says she won't go to a party. The typical parent says, 'Oh, it's not so bad,' or, even, 'That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.' "

The first response is false reassurance, the second dismissive. Neither is helpful. Instead, Elovson says, try empathy: " 'I know this bothers you, although it's not as noticeable as you think. Try my makeup to cover it up.' ''

As improbable as it sounds, Elovson insists that it's actually possible to strengthen the parent-child relationship during these years. Validating feelings is one way to do it. Here are some other strategies:

- Be straightforward. "Talk about how you feel about something, how her behavior affects you," says Elovson. " 'I'm not comfortable with you wearing lipstick to school.' "

- Seek out her feelings, let her know she counts.

- Don't be accusatory.

- Compromise. "Telling her she can't do something is not wise. She'll feel repressed and controlled," Elovson says. Instead: "How about if you just wear lipstick at home?"

- Look for ways to convey your values without threatening hers: "I was looking through this magazine and noticed how thin these models are. It makes me think there's a lot of pressure on girls your age about weight. Do you feel that?"

Petersen says that clothes and makeup are two issues that deserve the least amount of your attention. "Give her freedom to experiment," she says, especially because peer pressure is so strong and because being different is such a stigma.

Besides, she argues, other issues are far more critical than clothes -- "Anything that might lead to sex, drugs, drink or being in a car with older kids," Petersen says. "When you do have to say no -- and you will," she adds, "do it after hearing each other's point of view. She may still be disappointed, but she won't feel you treated her as a child."

Petersen says the best way to get through these years is to look at them as opportunities to share information and values, "not as upsetting, horrible experiences you have no control over," even though, she adds, that may feel true.

And what if your preteen is a boy? "Life is somewhat easier," says psychiatrist Kettl. Boys' puberty typically is two years later than girls', and it lacks the explosion of hormonal activity. But that's material for another time.

HELPING PRETEEN GIRLS
WITH PROBLEMS
- Preteen girls' grades often plummet. If that happens, don't be accusatory. Instead, try an approach like this: "I know it's important to be popular, but it's also important to do well academically. Can you figure out a way to accomplish both?"

- Stay in touch with your daughter's teachers, not just for academic reasons, but also to know about social and behavioral changes.

- Preteen girls often feel socially isolated. Stay in touch with who her friends are and how the friendships are going.

- Although it's normal for a preteen girl to be preoccupied with weight, consult your pediatician if her concern is extreme.

- Recommended reading: "Period," by JoAnn Gardner-Loulan, Bonnie Lopez, Marcia Quackenbush. Volcano Press, San Francisco, $6.

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