5 Ways to Support Preteen Girls so they can be Strong and Confident During and After Puberty
Don’t assume that the preteen girl in your life learned all she needs to know about puberty in a biology class or from sneaking a look at some of the more descriptive books in the library. Puberty can begin as early as 3rd grade. Having frank and frequent discussions can help minimize slamming doors and decrease declarations of “I hate you!”. Education is powerful, so if you want to improve your chance of not getting to your own wit’s end, make sure to do (at least) these five things:
1. Confirm that she understands that in addition to all of the things that happen to our bodies during puberty, we also gain weight.
Girls can expect to gain between 30-60 pounds during adolescence. Due to societal pressures most of our girls are getting the message that their worth is closely tied to their appearance, and the weight gain can be traumatic. She may start wearing a hoodie or jacket when it’s 95 degrees and in the middle of summer. Reassure her that all of those body changes need fat to proceed successfully and that this is a natural process. Pay close attention to her eating habits to make sure that she is not restricting food or purging. Most eating disorders begin during or shortly after puberty.
2. Let her know that she is not going crazy.
Adolescents experience an “imaginary audience”. Whether or not she is sharing this with you, she often feels like people are looking at her and silently criticizing her appearance, when they actually haven’t even noticed her. Normalizing the phenomenon will help develop space between her feelings and thoughts and allow her to sort out the rational and irrational. I don’t know about you, but if I had known that feeling like people are talking about you behind your back all the time is often a normal part of puberty, I would have been a lot less self-conscious.
3. Motivate her to take part in new activities and to continue doing old ones.
Many girls stop playing sports and quit other activities by the time they reach high school. Oftentimes this is not because they no longer like the activity, but they have become too worried about the outcome and what other people might think if they’re not good at the activity. High levels of harm avoidance, like quitting instead of leaving yourself open for criticism, are often seen in teens and adults diagnosed with eating disorders. Avoidance can also be very harmful to self-esteem, even into adulthood. Make sure she knows from a very early age that she does not have to be the best at dance, basketball, soccer, cheerleading, etc. to be a part of the team. Let her know that if she likes doing it, she should continue doing it!
4. Encourage her to express her empathy, intuition, and a range of emotions (even the “bad” ones).
Just as boys have always been aggressively discouraged from showing any emotion except anger, many girls (and women) now also face cultural pressure to suppress their feelings. As your child moves into adolescence she will learn that she needs to stifle her emotions in order to be “cool”. Because holding back is very difficult, she may turn to starvation, binging, or using drugs or alcohol to help numb herself. This numbing is problematic for both genders because, at our core, we all have an intense need to be emotionally connected to another person (people). If we don’t allow ourselves the freedom of expression, we will not be able to truly be known by another person, and our lives will be infinitely less satisfying.
5. Validate her feelings and remember that validation does not mean agreement.
The most important thing an adult can do for any child is to validate them. Invalidation, such as saying, “you shouldn’t feel that way” or “stop crying”, will cause your teen to distrust herself. She will not understand what her emotions are telling her and get so confused she might not even know what emotion she is experiencing. Try making comments such as “being in 9th grade does suck” or “I would be sad if that happened to me, too”. This shows that you understand her and assures her that her feelings and thoughts are worthy. She will be less likely to connect her appearance to her sense of confidence, and when society deems how she looks as “not the ideal”, which none of us are, she will maintain her strength and self-love regardless.