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Helping Little Girls Deal With Big Emotions

I have several disjointed, painful memories from early adolescence. It’s entirely possible-even likely-that I have blocked out some of that time. Yet I can still pull forth the horror of leaking blood through my shorts on a trip to King Island when my period arrived unexpectedly. I remember a friend shielding me from behind as I exited the lunchroom one day during seventh grade, attempting to limit the embarrassment of my protection failing during another especially heavy period. I remember a family member tormenting me month after month for being unable to control my emotions, from irrepressible anger to deluges of tears. I remember fainting in the school hallway from the intensity of my cramps and waking to several teachers gathered around me, witnessing my humiliation.

It probably doesn’t come as a big surprise that I have spent much of my adult life avoiding my period. Thanks to modern medicine, it’s not that hard. As much as I admire all the people now promoting period positivity, I have not convinced myself to be one of them.

So what would make me go from “woman who has tried to ignore the existence of periods for the last twenty years” to “woman sharing some of the most horrible memories of her least favorite bodily function all over the internet”? First of all, there was this scene: my normally even-keeled nine year old was on day three of weeping over everything from a cranky girl at gymnastics practice to the neighbor who was unavailable to play to her lack of success at the sketching of an elephant. As I was tucking her in at bedtime, her usual upbeat attitude was replaced with more tears and one question: “Why can’t I stop crying all the time?”

OH. I suddenly realized what was happening. I also realized that I was totally unprepared for this. I mean, she’s NINE. Is this really happening already? (Thanks to my best friend Google, I quickly discovered that it is not at all uncommon for girls as young as eight or nine years old to begin feeling the effects of changing hormones. Breast development and periods are probably years away, but there’s still a lot going on in preparation.)

I also realized that I didn’t know what to do or how to help her with these unsettling new feelings. In avoiding my period for so many years, I had entirely missed the chance to be an example of the very things I want her to be–confident, comfortable, and capable in relation to her body. I have not always modeled self-care, body confidence, and healthy management of my emotions.

If there’s one immutable law of parenting I have learned, it’s that the most difficult lessons to teach our children are the ones we have yet to learn ourselves. That means for any of those things to happen for her, I have to learn them first. Also unfortunately, my friend Google does not have a long list of easy answers to the question, “How to help little girls deal with raging hormones and mood swings.”

So now what? Honestly, I’m not really sure. Self-care—I have scoffed at the term before, but I need to do it. Asking for what I need—I usually just suck it up, but I need to start asking. Showing myself a little grace—I tend more toward internal criticism, but I need to change that. What else can I do? A lot, and here are a few of the things I am working on.

I will keep communication open. Maybe I don’t even need to say this since it is kind of the cardinal rule of parenting, right? Still, it’s easy to let myself off the hook with the belief that my kids deserve some privacy. That leaves them with the responsibility of bringing up all those topics that they are probably nervous or embarrassed about. Without being disrespectful, I will err on the side of being a tiny bit intrusive in order to take responsibility off their shoulders. Of course, they can say they don’t want to talk, but I want to remind them repeatedly that I’m willing. I already try to invite conversation in all kinds of ways—asking questions, sharing something I heard in a podcast, handing them the magazine article I’m reading, sending a link to something I saw online.

I will model self-care. As I mentioned, I am not good at this one. But if I want my daughter to learn it, I have to model it. Plus, this is a little tricky when introvert mom needs a good dose of quiet time to feel sane, and extrovert girl doesn’t understand how spending time alone could possibly make anything BETTER. To her, spending time together and talking nonstop is the perfect way to feel better. So we are brainstorming ideas for self-care for both of us—individually and together—to recharge and regroup. And then remembering to ask for what we need. 

I will encourage good sleeping habits and reinforce our routines. Just like me, all of my kids are much more capable of dealing with stress when they are well-rested. Adding the physical and mental strain of adolescence to the mix, I know I need to be more diligent about keeping them all on track with their sleep routine.

I will be her anchor, not her mirror. As a mom, I’m the emotional thermometer of the house. I begin to feel cranky when they are cranky, angry when they are angry, excited when they are excited. While I won’t ever stop expressing empathy, I am going to work on being more of an anchor to my daughter during this time—a person she can count on to be calm and reasonable when everything feels crazy. Easy enough, right? Hahahahaha…work in progress, for sure.

I will make puberty normal, not magical or scary. When I was a kid, we had the super-top-secret-and-majorly-important reveal day at school. You know—the day the teachers told us all about the magical changes that were about to happen which would transform us into adults. AND WE COULD MAKE BABIES. While some of my friends got boobs and some of the boys got really stinky and I got my period, we were decidedly not adults. And even though in theory we could have made babies, that idea was absolutely terrifying, right along with the cramps, bleeding, bloating, acne, and hair growing in new places. All horrifying. I want to reinforce the idea that even though it might be hard at times and things seem to be constantly changing, that her experience is extremely normal, that she isn’t alone, that we are in this together.

I will teach her brothers well. Have you seen all the period-positive media lately? It seems to me that there’s more talk than ever about how normal periods are. I am so grateful for the good publicity. It reminds me what I’m striving for. For the sake of my daughter’s mental health as well as all the girls they will ever meet, befriend, date, work with, marry, or parent, I want the boys to know how perfectly normal female physiology is. It’s not a joke or a weakness. (By the way, have they noticed how hormones affect their emotions and behavior? Because it happens to boys too. Have you been around any 11-year-old boys lately? Just saying.) It’s not scary or weird or gross. It’s science. It’s life. It just is.

We have a long, long way to go on this puberty path. While I know there will be a lot more changes to come, right now I am just hoping to get us both—my daughter and me—in a positive frame of mind. Our bodies do not always seem like our friends, but I hope we can make this time of her life more comfortable than painful, more confident than cringe-worthy, and more empowering than embarrassing.

Am I on the right track? How did you learn to deal with your own hormones, mood swings, and uncontrollable crying? How did your mom help? How have you helped your daughter? What are your ideas for making the changes of puberty a positive experience instead of one she will spend the rest of her life trying to forget?

2 Responses to Helping Little Girls Deal With Big Emotions

  1. Feliz April 6, 2017 at 1:36 pm #

    Great article, Tara!!

  2. Kate
    Kate April 6, 2017 at 2:57 pm #

    The idea of becoming an anchor instead of a thermometer really resonates with me. Thank you for sharing this sensitive topic.

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