If you and your child are staring puberty in the face and your panties are in a bunch about it, you're not alone. Below are some useful tips to get through it — from moms who are in the thick of it.
What to expect when you have a girl
Boobies + bras
When to expect it
Between 9 and 13 (there's a wide range of normal here!)
What to expect
The estrogen that's being pumped into your tween's body from her ovaries causes breast budding — small bumps behind the nipples. Eventually the nipples and buds will get bigger, darker, and sometimes even pointy, becoming rounder and fuller over time. Her boobs will feel a little tender, and one breast may be bigger than the other. Let her know that this is totally normal and won't last forever. It's okay to give her acetaminophen if she's particularly sore. At this stage, you might want to get her a cupless or sports bra to help give her support and protect her tender breast tissue from rubbing against material that might irritate her, says Sherrie Strong, owner of a lingerie store in Snellville, GA.
How to deal
It's going to be hard adjusting to your daughter's new body, particularly if she's filling out quickly and looking more like a woman than a little girl. Try not to make a big deal about it —she's probably self-conscious enough. Tori*, a Frisco, TX, mom of four, simply put her daughter Gabi*, then 12, in a T-shirt to help her get a visual on why she needed a bra. Ally*, a New York City mom, gave her daughter, Carmen*, now 12, a bra heads-up about two years ago. "I just treated it like getting broccoli," says Ally. "When we went to Target, I'd say, 'Hey, pick out some bras you like and throw them in the basket.' Now she loves them so much she sleeps in them."
Tori had a hard time finding a bra that fit Gabi properly. Eventually a friend who works at Victoria's Secret offered to measure her daughter so they'd know exactly what size to buy. Getting fitted is a smart move; go as often as you would have her sized for shoes, says Strong: "Some girls seem to go to sleep an A cup and wake up the next day a C cup." Wearing a bra that fits well will help protect her from backaches, uncomfortable straps, and stretch marks, which come when the tissue in the breast is unsupported, she adds.
When to expect it
Between 10 and 15, with most typically getting their periods about two years after their breasts start to develop. Many girls also get a vaginal mucuslike discharge about six months before they menstruate for the first time.
What to expect
She's likely to have all the symptoms you have when you get your period: backaches, cramps, acne, PMS — the works. Don't expect it to be regular at first — it can take as long as two years before she'll establish a cycle.
How to deal:
My talk with my mom about menstruation went something like this:
Me: "Mommy? We learned about periods in health class today. The teacher said we should get this kit. It comes with books and pads and stuff."
My mom: "Okay."
That was it. I don't want this for Mari and her 6-year-old sister, Lila, and you probably don't either. If you haven't already, tell your tween what will happen. No need to get all technical about it, just say, "Every girl's reproductive system — the part that helps your body make babies when you're a grown-up — is going to start working. There will be blood. You are not going to die. It's natural and normal. It'll be yucky. And sometimes your tummy will hurt. And you'll have a really bad attitude. But it happens to all of us."
One way to start the discussion might be the way Tori did: when her girls discovered her pads and tampons in the bathroom. "My motto is if they ask, I'll answer the best I can. I did tell them how to use pads, and that they'd get cramps, backaches, acne, and all that good stuff." Though my mom wasn't nearly as communicative, the kit she eventually purchased for me certainly helped prepare me for what was to come. I also remember thinking it was incredibly cool to have my own stash of stuff. You can buy some kits online — the Dot Girl's First Period Kit (dotgirlproducts.com) and the Petite Amie My First Cycle Kit For Girls (mypetiteamie.com) come with pads, tampons, and booklets for less than $25 apiece — but it's pretty easy to make one on your own for much less. Check out the Kotex and Tampax websites; they're full of information you can print out and put into a cute cosmetics bag with pads and tampons. You can add other items, too, like a heating pad, pain relievers, and sanitary wipes.
What to expect when you have a boy
When to expect them: Somewhere between age 11 and late teens (and for some, even early adulthood)
What to expect: He won't look like Arnold Schwarzenegger overnight, but your son will start getting more muscular, mostly in his arms and shoulders. The male puberty hormone, testosterone, is working with growth hormones to make him fill out. Don't be surprised if you catch him making Hulk poses in the mirror — or asking for dumbbells. Dede King, a Brownsville, PA, mom of five, says that every night before bed, her 10-year-old, Cameron, does two sets of light weights he bought with her permission. "It's kind of humorous that I'm reading him his Boxcar Children story at the same time that he's trying to bulk up to look like a man," King says.
How to deal: He might be in a rush to keep up with his pals, but his developing muscles won't be able to withstand heavy weight lifting until he's about 13 years old, and even then it's important for him to have supervision and to increase weight slowly. Explain to him that the best way to build up his muscles is by eating healthfully and doing all the things kids do — running, jumping, playing — and doing team sports, says Charles Cappetta, M.D, adjunct associate professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. And if he wants to "work out," calisthenics, like push-ups, pull-ups, and squats, are better for him now and still build muscles. Sweating it out five days a week is plenty, no more than one hour a day.
Wet dreams + masturbation
When to expect them: Between 10 and 14 for wet dreams; around 12 or 13 for masturbation (though it can begin sooner)
What to expect: As his body produces more testosterone, your son may start to ejaculate semen at night. Sometimes an erotic dream accompanies these releases; sometimes it doesn't. If they weren't masturbating before, most boys will figure out how to pleasure themselves around the time they hit puberty. (Girls masturbate, too — it just seems to be a bigger part of boys' lives.) Nona*, a mom from Atlanta, suspects her 11-year-old son has been masturbating for at least a year. He "politely goes into his room, closes the door, and goes to town!" she says. "How do I know? Well, he practically jumps off the bed each time I open the door. I'm not quite sure why he hasn't figured out that he can just lock it."
How to deal: If you haven't talked to your son about wet dreams and he has one, he might think he's peed in the bed, so give him the 411 and tell him this is perfectly normal. If he's embarrassed by the thought of his mom or dad changing his wet sheets, put an extra set in his closet and show him how to change the bed himself.
Also, try to remember that masturbation is normal human behavior — even though it's emotionally hard to accept the fact that your child is evolving into a sexual being. The more you remind yourself of this, the easier it will be to discuss it with him, while laying down some rules. Let him know that pleasuring himself is something he should do in private, and that he should never do it in a public place or a heavily trafficked room in the house where people could walk in on him. Parents have a new responsibility, too: It's time to start knocking on the bedroom door before barging in.
If you (or your tween) find it too uncomfortable to bring up the subject, try this: Kathy*, of Greenbrae, Calif., fills an envelope with pieces of paper, each with a hot-button tween and teen concern like drinking, wet dreams, or shaving written on it, and has her son, now 15, pick one out every couple of weeks. The goal is to vary the level of mortifying subjects so they all get the same casual approach, says Kathy. "We call them Ten-Minute Topics. He actually looks forward to these conversations, and they often go longer than ten minutes!"
To find out what you can expect from both boys and girls, visit http://www.parenting.com.