Becoming little women

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From the moment we hold that precious bundle of new life in our arms, we cannot begin to imagine the whirlwind of growing up and development that will occur. That plodding toddler in self-chosen, mismatched ensemble is rapidly going to become a woman in the blink of an eye, so, it’s important to have an idea of some of the changes we need to expect as she matures.

Puberty is the time of change when young people begin to develop the outward signs of becoming an adult and when they become able to reproduce (have a baby). Puberty starts when hormones from part of the brain (pituitary gland) act on the ovaries to begin sexual changes in girls.

It is a key process of human development into adulthood, involving the most rapid physical growth the human undergoes. Hormonal changes lead girls to experience their first menstruation (menarche). The physical growth of puberty is accompanied by new and complex emotions, including sexual desire and gender identity. These changes are also associated with peer pressure to behave in a certain way.

“The emotional changes associated with puberty may be as overwhelming as the physical changes.”

On average, females begin puberty around the age of 10 or 11 (age varies depending on factors such as nutrition). It can begin as early as eight or later, up to 16 years and still be quite normal. It takes approximately two years from the start of puberty until a girl has her first period.

General physical changes you can expect in girls:

  • The skin often becomes oily, often resulting in pimples (acne).
  • Hair often becomes oily and may require more frequent washing. After a while, the body will become used to the hormonal changes and the oiliness of the hair will settle down.
  • The sweat glands become more active resulting in increased perspiration and requiring the use of a deodorant.
  • A growth spurt occurs.

Sexual changes happen in stages:

  • The visible physical changes start with changes to the breasts (budding).
  • Her hips will widen and pubic hair will begin to grow.
  • Both breasts do not necessarily grow at the same rate. The difference in size is not permanent. However, if there is a marked difference, seek advice from a doctor.
  • Underarm hair develops and the hair on legs and arms will become darker.
  • When a girl first starts menstruating:
    • Her periods may be irregular.
    • The menstrual loss may be very slight or quite heavy.
    • A period may last from three to seven days, with a heavier loss at the start of the period.
    • Many girls experience period pain (often after they have started ovulating or producing eggs).
    • Usually, girls do not ovulate for the first few months to a year or so after their periods start. Cycles that are anovulatory (no ovulation) tend to be irregular and this is not cause for concern.
    • Once girls start to ovulate, they are fertile (able to have a baby).
    • Some girls suffer from mood changes and other symptoms of PMS for up to a week before their period.
    • Too much exercise or weight loss can cause periods to stop or become irregular after they have started.
    • Her body will develop more into the shape of a woman

How can we support our girls through these changes?

  • First and foremost, we must help our girls to see that this is an important and exciting milestone in growing up and not something to be ashamed of.
  • Girls should be prepared for their first period, what to expect, what periods are like and what they mean, how to be prepared.
  • Reassure the girl that it is usual for her breasts to be slightly different in size but that the difference is not noticeable to others.
  • If she has a lot of pain with her period, a hot water bottle, some exercise or a warm bath may help, as will pain-relief medicines such as paracetamol or an anti-inflammatory. If the pain is too much to handle, talk to a doctor.
  • If her period does not start at the same time as her friends did, reassure her that it will happen. Some girls like to wear a bra before they need one to feel part of the group. A soft bra, like a sports bra, can be good to start with.
  • Consult a doctor if she has not had a period by the time she is 16 or 17, or if periods stop after they have started.

Remember that the emotional changes associated with puberty may be as overwhelming as the physical changes. Respect your daughter’s need for privacy. Mood swings will occur and your child will want to establish her own identity. Try to be as supportive as possible and not take it personally, while at the same time negotiating limits.