Several people took issue (some in an unfortunately hostile way) with my post that mentioned research showing that girls with involved biological fathers start puberty later than those with a non-biological father or no father at all. So to satisfy the critics, here are several citations that should satisfy your inner (and not-so-inner) skeptic.
More and more girls are starting puberty early. Some as early as six! If you’ve got daughters–and I’ve got three of ‘em–there are a few things you really, really need to know. Let’s start with the good news, some of which I’ve written about extensively.
For example, girls who have actively involved dads start puberty later than those with less involved dads. In fact, girls who grow up without a biological dad are twice as likely to start puberty young than girls in families where mom and dad are there.
The rest of this article is on the Talking About Men’s Health blog, here.
Dear Mr. Dad: My wife is in the Army and just deployed overseas, where she’ll be for a year. Our daughter is 11 and I’m worried that she’ll start her cycle while my wife is away. I don’t know what to tell her about her body. What do I do?
A: As the father of three daughters, I know exactly what you’re going through. The whole female puberty thing makes a lot of guys squeamish. But the good news is that it’s really not that difficult—especially since your daughter most likely won’t include you on her top ten list of people to get advice on puberty from anyway.
So your first assignment is to find an adult woman to run point. This could be a relative, friend, or even one of the female spouses whose husband is deployed with your wife’s unit. Whoever she is, she’ll be able to walk your daughter through the basics and give you a list of supplies you’ll want to have on hand.
But this doesn’t mean you can back away completely. As odd as it sounds, you actually have a very important role to play here (more on that below). That’s why you should learn as much as you can about girls’ puberty, just in case things don’t go exactly according to plan (and when was the last time they did?) Here’s a quick overview:
The process begins somewhere between ages 8 and 14. Your daughter will start to develop breasts, she’ll start growing hair on her genitals and under her arms, her skin may start breaking out, and eventually she’ll start menstruating. The whole thing usually takes from 18 months to as long as 7 or 8 years to complete. If your daughter seems to be starting at the very early end of the age range or hasn’t started by the end of the range, have a talk with her pediatrician.
Your daughter may feel fat, embarrassed, and uncomfortable in her new body. She may be constantly comparing her rate of development to that of her girlfriends and, if she’s started early, she may have to deal with some increased attention from boys—attention she may not be psychologically ready for.
Here’s where you come in. A lot of dads aren’t sure how to behave around their pubescent daughters and opt to back away physically—as if they’re worried about doing something inappropriate. Don’t do that. Your daughter needs to know that what she’s going through is normal and that you, the most important male in her life, love her whether he body is changing or not. If you push her away (literally or figuratively), no matter how good your intentions, she’s going to feel rejected. It’s also important that you keep talking to her—not about puberty, just about what’s going on in her life. Tell her you love her. A lot. And spend plenty of dad-daughter time together. Not taking an interest in this way is—in her mind—another sign of rejection.
Daughters who have close relationships with their fathers do better in school, are more likely to go to college, are less likely to get pregnant or use drugs, and have better mental health (less depression and anxiety and better self-esteem). In addition, researchers at Vanderbilt University found that girls whose dads are actively involved in caregiving start puberty later than girls who have more distant—or non-existent—relationships. One of their theories is that pheromones from biologically related males suppress puberty, while those from unrelated males might accelerate it.
Dear Mr. Dad. This is a little touchy but here goes. I have two sons ages 11 and 9. My oldest seems overly shy when it comes to changing clothes in front of other guys. My golfing buddy (whose kids are the same age as mine) and I occasionally take our boys to the country club pool. Because of pool chemicals, we insist that the boys shower and change clothes after swimming. The showers and locker room are communal. Even when it’s only our boys in the locker room they say my son showers in his swimsuit and then goes in a toilet stall to change. I talked with him in private and told him there’s nothing wrong with being naked in a locker room, but it hasn’t helped. Should I be concerned? My buddy thinks I should force him to change with the others to help him get over his shyness. Is he right?
A: Don’t listen to your buddy. Forcing your son to get naked in front of others will only make the situation worse.
Taking your son aside for a private conversation was great first step, but you’ll need to have another heart-to-heart (or two or three) to find out what he’s truly worried about. There are a lot of possibilities:
Is he shy or self-conscious? Some kids are just plain private. If he’s one of them, either let him keep doing his routine or have him shower at home. However, you might point out that taking a shower in his swimsuit might attract even more attention than just being nude. Also tell him that he’s in the majority: most people don’t like communal showers. In fact, it’s so common that many public schools have either installed private showers or banned showers altogether.
Is he different? Tweens are notoriously cruel to anyone who doesn’t seem normal (and their definition of “normal” can be pretty harsh). If your son is overweight or skinny, too tall or too thin, has straight hair or curly, he may fear that the other kids will make fun of him.
How mature is he? If your son is going through puberty and has spouted more chest and genital hair than other kids his age, he may feel embarrassed about his body. The same is true if he has less hair than the other guys. He needs to know that people mature at different ages and speeds. If you’re really worried, talk with his pediatrician.
Is he worried about hygiene? Locker rooms are breeding grounds for all sorts of fungi and bacteria. And showers—despite the fact that there’s a lot of soap around—aren’t much better. People aren’t supposed to spit or urinate in there, but we all know that plenty do.
Below the belt. Most males over the age of 10 feel the need to compare themselves with others. If your son is circumcised and many of the other kids aren’t—or vice versa—he may dread being different. If he’s ever had an erection in the shower (which is very, very common and can be triggered by something as simple as warm water running on his crotch), he may be mortified. And then there’s the daddy of all shower problems: size. This is another issue of people maturing at different rates. Chances are, your son is just fine in this area. You can reassure him that most of the other kids will be so worried about their own package that they won’t be paying any attention to his.
Dear Mr. Dad: I have 11-year old twin daughters and watching them blossom into young women is making me a tad uncomfortable. They’re always pulling away from me, and I never know if a hug or kiss will feel misplaced to them. Worse yet, suddenly the only parent they talk to anymore is mom—it’s as if I’m no longer needed or important in their lives. How am I supposed to handle all this?
A: Welcome to the ‘tween years. And if you think you’re confused, imagine how your daughters are feeling. Their bodies are changing in all sorts of ways and they’re probably plenty uncomfortable in their own skin. They’re too big to sit on your lap, too old to hold your hand, and they’ve gone from being Daddy’s little girls to wondering what their role is in your life and worried about whether everything that’s going on with them will affect their relationship with you. Oh, and to complicate things even more, your daughters are also just now discovering their sexuality (whether you want to hear about it or not).
So what’s a father to do?
- Two words: stay involved. You’re the most important male in their life, and your daughters are looking to you to show them how the world works. Your behavior around them and your reactions to their “blossoming” will shape how they see themselves now, and will set the stage for their future relationships with men.
- Understand what they’re thinking. One reason they’re pulling away is that they’re secretly hoping you won’t notice their bra-straps or say something that might embarrass them (even if it’s unintentional). And they’re trying to convince themselves—in a way that seems irrational to you but makes perfect sense to them—that if they don’t talk with you about the hair under their arms, menstrual cycles, and boys, those things will simply become non-issues.
- Don’t stop. Just because they’re growing up doesn’t mean that you can’t be affectionate with them. Ideally, you’ll still be able to hug and kiss them (as long as you don’t do it in front of their friends). But take your cues from them. If you sense that physical affection is making them uncomfortable, back off a little and show your love in other ways. Perhaps sticking a little note in their lunch box or spending time together doing something they love.
- Don’t ever say “go ask your mother.” That’s the surest way to get them to stop talking to you. If your daughters ask you something, take it as a compliment, listen carefully, and answer only if asked to.
- Be careful how you react. When the girls do talk to you, don’t wince or make any obvious uncomfortable noises or faces. They’ll take even the smallest twitch as proof that you aren’t happy with the young women they’re becoming.
- Lighten things up. When you feel the time is right, an occasional joke or some gentle ribbing (but not about puberty) could help open up the dialogue. When the girls feel that you’re proud of them and not put off or disappointed that they’re growing up, they may feel safe talking to you about things like boys and, if mom’s not around, maybe even some girly issues.
Remember that your daughters will spend more time in your life being women than they did being babies, toddlers, and children combined. Staying involved and close to your daughters during this uncomfortable time will strengthen your relationship with them for the rest of your lives.
Dear Mr. Dad: One of my 11-year-old daughter’s friends spends a lot of time at our house. She often wants to tag along on activities when I’d prefer to spend the time bonding with my daughter. I suspect the other girl’s dad isn’t around much. Is there a way to include this friend in some things but carve out some father-daughter time too?
A: Congratulations on recognizing the importance of spending quality time with your daughter at this critical age of her development. Adolescence is a hormonal and social horror show, and the extreme emotional swings, self-doubt, physical changes, and peer pressure adjustments your daughter is going through will play havoc with her life—and yours.