Many parents see their daughters suddenly move from dolls to boys almost overnight. How can parents best deal with this phase? The answer is too easy: information and communication. As with every other parental responsibility, it cannot be postponed until there is a problem.
The society we live in currently is highly sexualized. We are taught standards of behavior related to sexuality and romance at a young age. These lessons are almost always gender-based. The lessons certainly do not come solely from parents. Peers, schools, church, society, the media and others "educate" us about the roles we are to play. A female's move from childhood to adulthood can be quite intimidating for parents.
As puberty begins, a girl who seems quite different from the child who lived in their home a few months earlier may suddenly confront her parents. Parents should remember that-though they may sometimes feel shut out of their daughter's life-they are still her most important role models and moral guides.
Parental expectations need to be realistic and expressed consistently. A child who was allowed to dress like a pop music star at age 7 may not understand why daddy suddenly thinks it is a bad idea now that she is 12. She may ask herself, "Have I done something wrong?" Sexuality itself may come to be seen as a negative. Making a child ashamed of maturing may yield many negatives in years to come.
Remember that the girl is facing not only biological issues, but social issues as well. Girls often feel pressed to conform to society's expectations. This often means they feel they must be wanted or desired by boys.
Hormonal changes are normal for a pre-teen or teen girl. She is understanding and viewing her body in a new and different way. She is beginning to have emotional and sometimes sexual feelings towards classmates. It is with these first flirtations that a girl comes to understand her sexuality as tangible. Even more importantly, she begins to navigate this new area of her life. Remember that she is feeling discomfort about her own body, as well as how her body functions in relation to others.
During this time, girls may behave differently than they have in the past. This change may begin with a biological issue and then move to emotional and social in nature. Remember that the girl may be trying out different ideas of her adult self. If no familial-supported images exist, she may easily fall into one of our culture's stereotypical images of the female. Needless to say, not all of these are positive.
A girl whose development comes at a faster rate than that of her peers may be given the label "bad girl" or "at risk child." Labels hurt because they are an oversimplification of the human condition, and because they cannot be easily removed. Girls who are labeled as "bad" may be cast into that role further by classmates, teachers, friends and even family. Preconceived notions are the enemy of the parent of a pre-teen or a teenager.
It is extremely important to nurture and guide her in the right direction. For parents, understanding and caring are important. Self-education and honest communication are a parent's best strategies. Misinformation can be perceived as dishonesty, regardless of the intent. Parents must recognize that the daughter is moving toward maturity and adulthood. The honest and open conversation is not always pleasant, but it is crucial. Having those conversations cannot wait until a problem arises. Have them early and often. Be open to conversations on the fly as a teen or pre-teen is unlikely to schedule an issue for the time when Mom or Dad have set aside for "family time."
Pre-teen and teen girls are at a very delicate stage in their development to becoming successful and beautiful young women, and all that they require is a helping hand, and sometimes a push from their parents.
It is important for parents to relay to their girls that bodily changes are normal, and that they are growing into beautiful young women. That boy-crazy girl is your daughter. Really! Given some time, support and understanding, she will survive this. And believe it or not, so will you.
Mary Catherine Whitlock is a 2009 graduate of Georgia State University who will be pursuing a doctorate in Sociology. Eddie is the director of Mental Health America of Northeast Georgia, based in Athens.