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Tag: puberty

For girls, 10 is the new 15

Worried that your little girl is 10, going on 15?

You’re not alone.

When I first started working in schools with young women to give them the skills they need to move beyond mean girl machinations and body image blues, I envisioned I’d be working only with high schools. The frequent SOS calls from primary school teachers soon made it apparent, however, that this type of proactive work needed to start in Year 6.

And yet in the past twelve months, it’s been Year 4 girls that seem to be causing the most concern. Although it is well known that relational aggression tends to peak in the middle school years (Year 5-Year 8) this demographic does seem to be more vulnerable than ever before.

Why might this be the case?

1. A significant number of girls are hitting adolescence at a younger age. Over the past 20 years, the average onset of menstruation has dropped from 13 years to 12 years and seven months (although it is increasingly common for girls to start menstruating as early as eight and nine years of age). Significantly, the hormonal surges associated with puberty, known as adrenal puberty, will be happening even before any physical traits become apparent and can cause heightened emotions. There is also often a divide that forms between girls who may look very childlike still, and others who will begin to look more like young women.

Friendship groups, social media and physical development all contribute to girls growing up before their time. (Pic: iStock)

2. Rather than finding childhood carefree, many kids of both genders report feeling overwhelmed. They may be in families that are experiencing financial hardship, or relationship breakdown. With only childlike strategies to fall back on, many can’t cope alone; a recent University of Sydney study found the largest increase in the use of antidepressant medications was among children 10-14 years old.

3. There is increased external academic testing happening in our primary schools. Parenting expert and passionate proponent for play, Maggie Dent, blames NAPLAN for damaging our children. “Too much emphasis in the younger years on testing steals time away from the vital work of play” says Maggie, “and it through child-led play and caring human interactions that we learn how to build relationship and resilience.”

4. The average age for first exposure to porn is 11 years old. The type of messages young people receive about their emerging sexuality via this medium are often both confusing and confronting. One Principal shared with me how a young girl at her school was being asked by a male peer to send nudes, “This little girls was literally playing with dolls one minute, and being thrown into a situation where she had to try to cope with sex based harassment the next.” Parents who bury their heads in the sand and think there’s plenty of time for conversations around sexuality and respectful relationships later are doing their children a dangerous disservice.

Parents who bury their heads in the sand and think there’s plenty of time for conversations around sexuality and respectful relationships later are doing their children a dangerous disservice. (Pic: iStock)

5. Social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram stating the minimum age to sign up is 13 years. Despite this, surveys have shown that three-quarters of children aged 10-12 years have ignored the age limit, many without any parental guidance or monitoring. While we tend to be (rightfully) alarmed at the possibility of our girls being groomed by predators online, or bullied by their peers, we put far less thought into how we can support them to make sense of the narrow definition of beauty and messages around materialism they will be bombarded with when following their favourite influencers. Teachers tell me they are concerned about students in Year 4 who are already dieting, or refusing to participate in swimming as they fear looking fat in their costumes.

Once our girls reach double digits, we might be fooled by their increased desire for independence and more grown-up appearance to take a step back. Yet the reality is they still desperately need us to hold their hands just a little longer and support them to safety navigate the path to womanhood.

This post was first published in The Daily Telegraph, 8/9/18.

Not Your Average Friday!

I embrace every opportunity to listen to teen girls — to connect with them and also to learn their hopes, dreams and concerns, not to mention their insights into Girl World.

So at the end of every Enlighten workshop, we ask girls for their feedback. We want to know what really gets through to them. What is the best way to connect? What brings about lasting, positive change? What are the best ways to help girls shine?

This week I want to give a voice to one of those girls: Sienna Fracchia, a Year 9 girl who recently took part in a workshop with our Queensland program director, Storm Greenhill-Brown, and team member Louise Beddoes. I hope that Sienna’s thoughtful — and impressively articulate! — feedback will be of valuable to anyone who works with girls, wants to better understand girls, and wishes to make a strong, authentic connection with them.

 

Not your average Friday!

I arrived at school on Friday 2 March thinking, ‘Oh, this Year 9 Development Day is just going to be another one of those “growing up” sessions about puberty and development!’ I predicted a whole day in a room full of Grade 9 girls, discussing various body parts and how our emotions will develop. An organisation called Enlighten Education was doing a presentation called ‘The Butterfly Effect’; I thought it was some type of nickname for girls going through puberty or something cheesy like that. It sounded like the worst way to spend a Friday. I spent a good hour before school reflecting on the many uncomfortable student-teacher moments of the past when we talked about puberty or another awkward topics involving adolescent development, and the many that were to come.

For educators, it can be a bit confronting to hear this straight from the horse’s mouth. But it’s a great reminder that sometimes even when it seems that girls have been given the required personal development courses, the messages still may not have got through. Whilst girls might be present in the room, they might not be engaged and another way may need to be found to connect with them.

 

When the bell rang, my friends and I trudged up the stairs to our doom; but when we slowly edged our way into the room, we were swept away from the world of smelly, hairy boys ruling our lives, into GIRL WORLD — a sea of pink and purple fabric, butterflies and glitter, where school shoes were just an accessory and girls ruled.  My judgement was so wrong! A goodie bag and pamphlet were thrust into our arms, as our minds were registering the awesome day that awaited us.

Girls want (and of course deserve!) to feel special and important. Simple, attractive visual props and handouts set the scene. They signify to girls that this is a time and space set aside just for them, and that something transformative is about to happen.

 

We started our adventure learning the heartbreaking but also amazingly romantic story of our leader, Storm, from Enlighten Education. Then a little physical exercise (dancing!) and we knew that this was going to be one of the best days of our school lives. Through five different workshops, we discovered just how amazing GIRL WORLD and all the girls in it really are.

Sienna points out something that is crucial to getting through to girls: telling our own stories. If we want girls to be vulnerable and reveal their true selves to us, we must first do so ourselves. Only by being open and letting ourselves be seen  can we expect to win girls’ trust and deeply connect with them.

 

After the first workshop, Forever Friends, I really wanted to become friends with all the girls and stand up for them. I really wanted us to become a family; we are sisters, no matter if we are presently in the same friendship group or not. After every workshop, we were presented with a small pink and black card that had an affirmation relating to the workshop. The first one read: ‘I attract good, positive friends into my life. I encourage and support others.’

The academic demands are so intense on girls now that I think we sometimes forget that friendship skills — making friends, choosing the right friends, resolving conflict — are also something girls need our help with.

 

Get It Together, our second workshop, taught us how to manage our time and develop techniques to calm ourselves and de-stress. A bit of yoga and calming music and we were in heaven. Free to move the way we wanted, and to be comfortable in our own skin, we learned to relax. My earlier fears were certainly proved wrong beyond any imagination. Our second affirmation read: ‘I enjoy learning. I have potential to achieve, and I have faith in my abilities.’

Girls are undeniably under a lot of pressure, so helping them learn healthy ways to relieve stress (rather than binge drinking, smoking or dieting, for instance) is more important than ever before. Incorporating short bursts of relaxation meditation or exercise (such as the dancing that Sienna loved) into the day can be relatively simple — and cost free.

 

The third workshop was after morning tea, and taught us about the dangers girls can face in the world. It was called Stop, I don’t like it but unlike the title, we loved it and the session really made all of the girls feel safer and more in control. Enlighten Education also provided us with contact numbers of help lines and emergency numbers, and for the information of all you women and girls out there, we actually practised the eye gouge and groin kick! Storm assured us that we were all strong, brave, beautiful Amazon women. The third affirmation card told us I listen to my butterflies and set boundaries. I am an Amazon.

We would all love to protect our girls from every danger they may face in the world — but we cannot be there all the time, so the best thing we can do is make sure they can look after their personal safety. Sienna’s feedback shows that girls can be empowered to look after themselves and feel in control.

 

Before going for lunch we had our fourth workshop: Princess Diaries. Firstly, we made stunning diaries in which to write our fears, dreams, achievements, failures and worries. Beautiful ribbons, glitter, paper, stickers and butterflies were presented to us with an exercise book for us to decorate to our heart’s desire (or until lunch, whichever came first!). Instinctively, the groups we were in stopped being selfish, and we all cared for and helped our sisters.

Teenage girls are just bursting with feelings and thoughts. Getting them down on paper helps girls get a handle on who they are, and who they want to be.

 

We finished the day in a workshop called Love the Skin You’re In. Just as the title suggests, that’s exactly what we did. Storm taught us how to accept that we are all beautiful, amazing and talented. She spoke about self-confidence and self-praise. I tried the self-praise part and it actually really does make you feel better about yourself. It was affirmed on the cards that: ‘I am precious. I choose to send loving thoughts to myself and others. I surround myself with positive words and attract good things into my life.’

Girls are exposed every day to so many voices (the media, advertisers, their peers) telling them they aren’t pretty enough, or popular or thin or smart or rich enough. We can’t silence those voices, but we can help girls like Sienna develop strong self-esteem that enables them to grow into resilient women.

 

Finally, we were set a challenge to wear a bracelet on our left arm and for 21 days, recite the words on the affirmation cards and only speak positively about ourselves and others. Then, when we complete the challenge, we move the bracelet to our right arm so that everyone knows that we believe in ourselves.

Friday 2 March was one of the best days, not only of school, but of my life. It came at the perfect time for me and helped me so much. I don’t know what I would’ve done without it. I read my affirmation cards every day and I hope to keep them for a very long time. My journal and bracelet will always stay very close to my heart and I will never forget Storm and Lou, our great, girl gang leaders!

Sienna, you and your friends are close to our hearts, too. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, hopes, wishes and dreams with us. We hear you!

I feel passionately about the need to engage with girls and listen to what really matters to them. The launch of my book for girls, “The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo”, has been a wonderful chance to get on the media and encourage parents to do just that, and I was more than happy to talk in depth about this on Channel 9’s “Mornings” show this week:

Behold the power of shampoo!

There is a whole world of nonsense out there in the marketing of haircare products to women. There are wild claims, like “unlocks the power of nature to give you 10X stronger hair”. There is all the jargon that means heaven knows what, like “our patented Bio-Ceramide Complex” or “natural protein fortifies hair for touchable softness” (well, if the softness is touchable, I better get a bottle now!). There are all those ingredients that must do something amazing, because you’ve never heard of them before, à la “argan oil from Morocco”.

Hollywood stars who have an army of stylists to get them looking just right rabbit on about products you are fairly sure they’ve never tossed into a shopping trolley. And of course, there are those pictures of models with tresses so long, shiny and digitally enhanced that it looks more like magical pony hair.

I think this haircare-ad spoof The Chaser team did, back when they were doing the show CNNN, is just gold. A woman’s dull, lifeless hair is “letting her family down” but after using “Esteem” shampoo her hair becomes “full of adjectives”:

A lot of teens spend a lot of hours angsting over their hair, as teens always have. How to wear it, how to cut it, how to make it straight or curly or thicker or thinner, how to get parents to agree to a hairstyle — you might remember going through all this yourself. And then there is the eternal greasy hair dilemma. The same hormone change in puberty that is responsible for the extra sebum (oil) production that leads to pimples is responsible for the oily scalp and hair that many girls feel self-conscious or even ashamed about.

With all these ads promising astonishing transformations, it’s no wonder that many girls (and women) go through a tonne of hair product and a mountain of disappointment looking for the magic bottle that will give them the “hair” they see on ads. I say “hair” because no one has hair like that, even the people in the ads. They have gone through hours of styling, are lit by state-of-the-art studio lighting and are then digitally enhanced. Ken Paves, who styles celebrities such as Eva Longoria and Jessica Simpson for hair ads, was quoted as saying, “It takes four hours of prep for one hair shot.”

To cut through all this trickery, I went looking to find out, realistically, how often it’s a good idea to wash hair and what to look for in products. And you know, for all the people in lab coats with molecular diagrams swirling around in the background of haircare ads, it turns out that there really aren’t many established scientific facts about hair washing. According to How Stuff Works, there is disagreement among medical experts who specialise in hair, skin and scalp about how often to wash hair — or even whether it’s a good idea to wash it at all!

One thing that seems clear, though, is that you probably don’t need to spend a lot of money on shampoo. They give a great explanation of what shampoo actually is: it’s about half water, with a mild detergent such as sodium laureth sulfate, plus coconut oil byproducts that don’t do anything for your hair but give the shampoo a desirable texture. Check out how quickly and easily a chemist can knock up a batch:

They recommend using a cheap, basic shampoo and saving your money to spend on conditioner.

I was surprised to find out how new the idea of regular shampooing is.

Back in the 1950s, it was common for women to have their hair washed and styled once a week at the hairdresser . . . Around the turn of the 20th century, women tended to go for about a month between salon visits. — How Stuff Works

After ABC radio presenter Richard Glover interviewed Times journalist Matthew Parris, who said he hadn’t washed his hair for 10 years, he challenged his readers to do the same for 6 weeks. Five hundred people took up the challenge, and 86 per cent of them said their hair was either better or the same.

I can’t see many teen girls wanting to try that out — me neither! So this is the advice I gleaned from Paula Begoun, “The Cosmetics Cop”, who devotes her time to debunking the outlandish promises made by the cosmetics industry: “Even washing hair on a regular basis . . . causes irreversible damage. There are ways to mitigate the damage: wash hair less frequently, condition the hair, and use protective styling products and conditioners . . . don’t over-strip hair by overdoing hair dyes . . . and use blow dryers and flat irons intermittently and carefully.” She recommends that you spend more time washing and massaging the scalp, to increase circulation, than the ends.

Some girls are embarrassed because they break out in acne around their hairline, and Begoun says that can be because some of the ingredients in shampoos and conditioners “are designed to stick to hair, which means they can also ‘stick’ to skin, too, and potentially clog pores”. She suggests rinsing well, using a gentle body and face cleanser, using only just enough conditioner, and going light on styling products.

And all those products that are designed to combat limp hair? Well, products themselves might be causing the limp hair in the first place. She says it’s best to use a shampoo with few or no conditioning agents and apply conditioner only where you need it, “not necessarily all over or near the roots and scalp”.

Taking the Blues out of Puberty, Part 3: For Schools

In the last of our three-part series on supporting girls through puberty, Enlighten Education’s sexuality education expert Rachel Hansen this week looks at what schools can do to help. But first, I have some exciting news about a new sexuality education initiative from Enlighten Education.

good talks title2Schools frequently request sexuality education programs from us, and we have listened to you! We are delighted to announce that from 2012 our talented presenters will also be offering the Good Talks sexuality education programs developed by our New Zealand program manager, Rachel Hansen.

Good Talks provides holistic sexuality education programs for girls and boys that focus on empowering them to cherish their individuality and build positive relationships based on respect, equality and healthy choices. Programs are tailored to each individual school’s needs, with an emphasis on ensuring that the material is age appropriate. Topics covered can include puberty, anatomy, conception, pregnancy, contraception and an examination of the way sexuality is represented in the media and popular culture. For more information or to book a half-day Good Talks seminar at your school, email us at enquiries@enlighteneducation.com.

And now, over to Rachel . . .

 

Last week I offered some tips to support parents in talking to their girls about puberty and getting their first period, because now more than ever, parents need to have the knowledge and confidence to be able to discuss sexuality with their children. The work of parents also needs to be backed up by quality holistic sexuality education within all our schools.

If, like many parents, you assume that your child is already getting basic sexuality education at school, think again. Despite the fact that more than half of Australian teenagers are sexually active by the time they are 16, there is no mandatory, comprehensive Australia-wide sex-education policy. In New Zealand, sexuality education is a key area of learning in the National Curriculum, which means that it must be taught at primary- and secondary-school levels. Yet a 2007 enquiry by the New Zealand Education Review Office concluded: “The majority of school sexuality education programmes are not meeting students’ learning needs.” In both countries, there are some schools that offer fantastic programs, but there is no guarantee that your child will be one of the lucky ones.

Many parents say to me, “Oh, but my child has no interest/no idea/no awareness about anything to do with sexuality.” This may be true, but their classmates do, and their classmates are talking. If a child isn’t getting information from her family or her school, she will turn to her friends or the internet. I don’t have to persuade you that googling “vagina” is probably not going to throw up much useful advice for a 10-year-old. So I urge schools across Australia and New Zealand to do everything they can to meet the physical and emotional needs of students as they reach puberty.

Make it age appropriate.
As I discussed in an earlier post, puberty is starting earlier for girls, and it is important that they understand what is happening to them before they get their first period. This means that schools need to rethink the age at which they teach students about puberty. In New Zealand for at least the past 40 years, students have been taught about puberty usually in years 7 and 8. As it is not uncommon for girls to start menstruating at age 9 or 10 now, I encourage schools to teach it in years 5 and 6.

Don’t exclude the boys!
Ensure that the boys in your school are equally well informed about female puberty as the girls, and vice versa. The boys need to be in on the period talks, and the girls need to understand erections and breaking voices. If girls and boys understand what the other is experiencing and why the changes happen, bullying is likely to be greatly reduced.

When we had the puberty talk at school, the boys and the girls were separated. I never knew what the boys learnt, but afterwards they were fascinated with our ‘pad packs’ that we’d been given, and they stole them and teased us, demanding to know what we had been told. We were all really embarrassed and didn’t know what to say to the boys. I thought that it would be really naughty if we told them – because obviously our teacher didn’t want them knowing. Because they weren’t taught about it, it made it seem like periods were taboo and secret from boys. — Kelly

School was tough. The boys used to grope us to see if we were wearing a pad, then announce to the entire corridor that we had our periods. Or they’d go into your locker looking for pads to steal and stick all over the corridor. — Sophie

Stock your library with books and pamphlets on puberty.
Age-appropriate books and take-away pamphlets are fantastic for students to access in their own time and when they need answers. Primary schools can be reluctant to put sexuality and puberty books in the library for fear that parents of younger students will complain. One solution that I have seen in some schools is to have a special part of the library dedicated to the older students. These students like it because it’s their special place, and it’s somewhere they can go for answers if they don’t feel comfortable asking their teachers or parents.

Make sure girls know where to go for help and advice.
Girls need to know who to go to for support at school if they have concerns or questions about puberty or sexuality. Make sure that girls also know where a supply of pads are kept in case they are caught out. Many schools have these at the administration office, which is always staffed during the day. It is worth having a brief discussion with staff at the start of the year about what to do when a girl gets her period and needs support, as some staff will be unaware of the stress that periods cause some girls.

I got my period for the first time in my first week of high school. I was mortified because I didn’t have a pad. My friend went and asked the lady at the front desk and she gave me one – thank goodness! I am not sure what I would have done otherwise. — Laura

There was always the fear of getting caught at the far end of school from my locker, needing to change pads and having, in the time a teacher thought was acceptable for a loo stop, to run from one end of the school to another to get supplies. — Sophie

Also be sure that girls can dispose of used pads and tampons appropriately. As the average age at which girls get their first period decreases, primary schools now need to make sure there are sanitary bins in the girls’ toilets.

Rachel Hansen headshotRachel Hansen is the progam manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand and is an experienced educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Rachel is the founder of Good Talks, an organisation that offers sexuality education to schools and parents.

Taking the Blues out of Puberty, Part 2: For Parents

We had a great response to last week’s guest post about how girls are reaching puberty younger than ever before – and this week, Enlighten’s own sexuality education expert Rachel Hansen gives her helpful tips for parents on how to prepare girls for their first period.

 

When I mention the ‘P’ word to a group of tweens, it usually incites squeals of embarrassment and excitement. Girls crave information about what will happen to their body over the next few years but are often not quite sure how, who or where to ask.

It can be a difficult time for parents. They may feel excitement at their girl reaching the next stage in life. But there is sometimes also a sense of sadness that their little girl is growing up or anxiety about how their girl will cope, particularly if she is young. Many parents are embarrassed or reluctant to discuss puberty with their children and often feel that they don’t know enough to teach them – if you feel this way, you are not alone!

The most important thing you can do with the girls in your life is talk, talk, talk! Rather than having a single “puberty talk”, it needs to be an ongoing conversation. Seize upon teachable moments to discuss puberty and related issues with your daughter. The more we talk, the easier it gets, and girls start to see periods as a normal part of the female experience. I’ve found it distressing helping girls who have come to me in absolute shock because their period had started and they didn’t know what to do, because no one had ever talked to them about it.

I got my period when I was 11 and I had no idea what was happening. My mother just said it was horrible and dirty and refused to discuss it. My Dad explained in horribly embarrassed terms. It was really traumatic. – Emma

My mum and I were sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and there was a poster on the wall with a picture of a toilet and the words ‘If you see blood in here, talk to your doctor.’ Obviously my mother saw it and thought it would be a good time to give me the period talk – without actually using the words period, menstruation, monthly, tampons or pads. She simply said, ‘If you see blood in your undies, let me know.’ For years I thought she was talking about bowel cancer. – Kim Powell

If you are a reluctant puberty talker, there are some great resources that can help you become more comfortable, including these books, Menstruation.com.au and Puberty Girl author Shushann Movsessian’s website. Also look for parent workshops in your area.

In many cultures, a girl’s first period is a rite of passage that is revered and celebrated. In our culture, particularly among girls who menstruate early, periods are often associated with embarrassment and confusion. We need to reclaim this. Give your daughter the message that her body is beautiful and incredible. For some mothers, this may involve healing of their own, as many women carry with them the shame and confusion they experienced with menstruation as a child. Some families like to celebrate – go out for ice-cream or have a celebration with family. Other girls prefer to keep it private. The most important thing to consider is your daughter’s wishes, as this woman illustrates:

I got my first period during a family dinner and Mum announced it to the whole family. My grandfather hugged me – this did not help!!! I cried. Mum made Dad go out and buy a cake – my nana called it a period cake. It was a hideous experience!

Make sure girls know what tampons and pads are, what they look like and what they are for. There are many opportune teachable moments for this to happen.

When I was about 10 there was a tampon ad on TV. My mum launched in to an account of the ‘menstrual cycle’ and told me that one day I too would need to use tampons. She gave a good biological description, but I was a bit confused because I couldn’t work out what the beach and white swimsuits had to do with periods! – Chloe

Keep in mind that you may not be there when your daughter’s period starts, and it will be much easier for her if she can deal with it herself. Have supplies ready. If possible, get your daughter her own brand or colour, so she knows they are hers and doesn’t feel she has to sneak things that belong to others in the house. Some parents like to give their girl a ‘pad pack’ that goes discreetly in her school bag in case her period starts at school.

I had my first period about 6 months after my mother had died. I was so thankful that she had left me with a box of pads and a puberty book, so that when I got my period I was able to cope by myself. I wasn’t at the stage I wanted to share with my dad – a little too embarrassing – so I managed to cope fine. I think it is important for girls to have a book they can refer to as needed, and a pack of pads and tampons. – Lucinda

There are times when your daughter (or son) will have questions that you are unable to answer, or when she would prefer to find out for herself. Books are fantastic for such occasions.

Mum brought us home a puberty book to read – we feigned disinterest. I noticed my older brother had been reading it, so I waited for my chance to get it alone (when no one could see me), but before I finished it, Mum returned it to the library because she thought we weren’t interested. ‘But I need to know too!’ I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t. – Laura

My parents sat and read ‘What’s Happening To Me?’ with me. I remember being absolutely disgusted at some of the things, and embarrassed reading it with my parents. It was much better when they left me to read it in peace! – Kim

Indeed, Peter Mayle’s What’s Happening To Me? is as relevant now as it was when it was first published in 1981. Puberty Girl, an engaging book aimed at preteens, clearly explains the different aspects of puberty. I recommend Cycle Savvy for teen girls (and adult women!) to help them understand the intricacies and wonders of menstruation. My Little Red Book, by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, is an anthology of short stories from women of all ages from around the world about their first period. It is my favourite book to help girls understand how normal periods are – and how vastly different everyone’s experience of them is. And this is the main message that you need to pass on to your daughter: that pubertal change is not dirty or weird, but simply a normal part of growing up that happens to everyone.

Checklist for Parents
• Rather than planning a “puberty talk”, make it an ongoing conversation.
• Prepare yourself by attending seminars, reading books or searching online.
• Ensure your daughter knows ahead of time what menstruation is and how to deal with it.
• Find books to help you and your daughter through her puberty journey.
• Mothers, share your stories – remind your daughter that you survived puberty once too!

Next week I will be looking at what schools can do to support girls through puberty. If you have stories to share on that topic, I’d love to hear them: rachel@rachelhansen.co.nz.

Rachel Hansen headshotRachel Hansen is the progam manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand and is an experienced educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Rachel is the founder of Good Talks, an organisation that offers sexuality education to schools and parents.

Taking the Blues out of Puberty: Part 1

I didn’t get my first period until I was 15 years old. I was the last within my circle of friends, and by then, even my younger sister was a veteran (oh the indignity). You’ve never seen a teen girl more prepared for this milestone than I was. I had been carrying tampons in my school bag for so long I think they may well have past their use-by date! I had even had practice in breaking the news to parents as my best friend had been too embarrassed to tell her mother when she started her period and I had broken this news for her : “Mrs Manton, our Janelle has become a woman…” The main feeling I recall when I started menstruating was that of relief. Finally, I was in the “big girls” club! I was so elated I ran into my school assembly and screamed out “I have my period!” to my friends- not realising the teachers were already present and waiting to start. My Year Advisor was very gracious and began the assembly by congratulating me.

For many girls today though there is not this same sense of preparedness, nor do they think there is much to celebrate. A significant number too are going through puberty younger than ever before. I was asked by Kerri-anne recently to discuss why, and what the implications are.

This is such an important subject that I wanted to find out more and draw on the expertise of Enlighten Education’s own sexuality education expert, Rachel Hansen, who is my guest blogger this week.

Rachel Hansen headshotRachel Hansen is the progam manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand and is an experienced educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Rachel is the founder of Good Talks, an organisation that offers sexuality education to schools and parents.

Most women have a very vivid memory of where they were when they got their first period, what they were doing and how they felt. I was 12 and very reluctant to grow up – life was good as a little girl! On the day my period started I was playing make-believe games with my little brother and sister in our garden and I noticed blood on my undies. I cried and cried and cried. I sat by the window for the rest of the day, watching my siblings play, having decided with great sadness that now I had my period I was too old to play those games. I felt a real sense of loss, and also despair that I was no longer in control of my body.

Research indicates that this moment is happening at increasingly younger ages than in previous generations. Over the past 20 years, the average onset of menstruation has dropped from 13 years to 12 years, seven months, and indications are it will continue to drop. As the average age has dropped by five months, it means that those girls at the lower end of the bell curve are also starting earlier. So nowadays it is increasingly common for girls to start menstruating as early as 8 and 9 years old. Researchers have found that 15 percent of American girls now begin puberty by age 7 (measured by the girls’ level of breast development). This is twice the rate seen in a 1997 study, and the findings are likely to be similar in New Zealand and Australia.

Why are girls reaching puberty earlier?
Some of the more widely supported theories about why this is happening are:
• As our standard of living has increased, so has nutrition. This means that there is less stress on girls’ bodies, allowing puberty to start earlier.
• Increased rates of obesity are thought to be a factor, as girls are now younger when they reach the level of body fat required to trigger puberty.
• There is a suspicion that increased levels of environmental chemicals that mimic the effects of hormones are causing girls to start puberty earlier.
• Interesting research from New Zealand indicates that girls exposed to stress at home (such as parental marital breakdown and domestic violence) were more likely to start menstruating before girls living in more settled home environments. One of these factors is that if a mother enters into a new relationship, the presence of a new man in the home triggers a hormonal response in girls that can lead to earlier puberty.

The consequences can be profound
Traditionally, puberty has marked the transition from childhood to adolescence or adulthood. Many girls absorb the message that beginning menstruation means that they are a woman. Just as I did, some girls who get their periods early can experience a sense of grief and loss, as they don’t feel ready to leave childhood.

For many girls, puberty marks the moment that they start to define their self-worth by the way they see themselves in the mirror. And all too often the girls don’t like what they see. Such a response is understandable: at the same time as girls are experiencing an increase in body fat and a widening of their hips, they are bombarded with messages from the media that suggest the perfect beautiful body resembles a prepubescent male or has proportions that can only be achieved through disordered eating or extreme Photoshopping.

I was so embarrassed by my body when I was younger that I couldn’t tell my mum I’d started my period, when I was 13. I lost it for 2 years thereafter as my weight plummeted, so I didn’t really have to deal with it and when it came back I was so angry. It meant a) that I had to deal with this THING happening to my body and b) I wasn’t a ‘good enough’ anorexic. My mum tried to talk to me about it, but I’d just slam doors and refuse to talk about it, or hide under my bed.

I found the changes in my body very distressing. I remember when I started growing breasts, initially at 12–13 and then again when I’d gained weight at 16–17 and I’d make deals with God that if I didn’t eat/was nice to my brothers/did all my homework/didn’t shout at my parents/etc., etc., that these things would go away. They didn’t. Now I’m kind of glad of that. – Ella

It is particularly concerning that evidence suggests that girls who reach puberty earlier have a more negative body image than girls who reach puberty when older.

Some girls eagerly anticipate their first period because they believe it will propel them into a world of sexual desirability and adult experiences. For girls at both ends of the spectrum, we need to be quite clear that getting your period does not equate to womanhood. Becoming a woman is far more than our bodies changing. We need to be careful about the symbolism we use surrounding menstruation and the expectations we place on girls.

Experiencing puberty at a younger age means that girls’ childhoods are being compressed and often their minds are not ready to deal with the changes that their body is going through. Many struggle to understand and cope with hormone-influenced emotions and sexual impulses, and are not ready to deal with sexual interest from males. Physical maturity often doesn’t reflect girls’ cognitive and emotional development.

In their study of the evolution of puberty, New Zealand researchers Gluckman and Hanson concluded that for the first time in human history we are maturing physically much earlier than we are maturing psychologically and socially. Meanwhile, our education system and our expectations as parents are grounded in the 19th century, when there was a closer match between physical and psychosocial maturity. “There will have to be adjustment to educational and other societal structures to accommodate this new biological reality,” they write.

poster - you are loved
The effect of this “new biological reality” is compounded by our consumer culture’s relentless march to shorten childhood. Prior to the late 1990s, marketers had not discovered the concept of tween, a phenomenon that now has girls wearing makeup and high-heels and their parents taking them to beauty salons or to get waxed. And the target market gets younger and younger, as we’ve seen with child beauty pageants. Earlier physical maturity, coupled with a highly sexualised society where girls are bombarded with the notion that sexual desirability is of utmost importance is a toxic combination – which is why it’s more important than ever to keep talking with our kids and showing them we love them for who they are, not for what they look like.

This is part one of a three-part series. In next week’s post, Rachel will look at what parents and schools can do to best support girls through puberty.

Our teen girls, our teen selves

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The diary I had when I was 14, branded “Sweet Dreams” for the teen-girl book series I loved so much.

I often say that one of the best ways to connect to teen girls is to reconnect with our own teen selves and remember how intense life was at that age.

Wow did I learn that lesson myself recently. I was packing to move house and found the diary I kept when I was 14 and in Year 8 at school. Reconnecting with 14-year-old Danni was by turns funny and shocking. Most of all, it was a reminder of why girls respond so passionately to the work Enlighten Education does — and why they need it so urgently.

My 14-year-old self was a mass of contradictions: studious and ambitious and desperate to grow up, yet childlike. Super-confident but self-critical. Sound familiar?

Here are some highlights . . .(with names changed to protect the anonymity of the friends I mention).

JANUARY

When I was a kid, I collected novelty erasers. I always thought I was about 7 when I did this but now I’ve realised I was 14. Dear God. (I still have them and get very anxious if my children want to touch them. They are kept on a high shelf in my wardrobe and shall be my legacy to the world.)

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My rubber collection. As soon as I took this photo I rushed and put it back onto the high shelf of my cupboard, where it is safe.

6th — Drove up to my Aunty’s. Tops as I got some rubbers on the way!

10th — Mum bought me a $2 Instant Lotto and I won $2! I bought 4 rubbers! Then we visited my Grandpa. God I love him. (Some things never change — my Grandpa will remain the great love of my life.)

18th — Bought some very cheap but very good rubbers.

You get the picture.

I was almost as enthusiastic in my interest in the opposite sex. Always from a distance, though.

22nd — Saw a boy at the pools. He was a spunk but he swore a lot. 🙁

There were special sections at the end of each month:

January’s Daydream: To be a psychiatrist and make everyone happy!

Goal for Next Month: To loose weight!

It saddens me to read that last entry, as I was a tiny teen. I hadn’t recalled ever worrying about my weight but I obviously did, just like most teens do now. When we ask for feedback after our workshops, girls often say things like the feedback I received from a teen girl just last week: “I stress a lot thinking I’m fat. I learnt today that I’m fine how I look, I shouldn’t care what others think and I’m not actually fat, I’m a size 10 – wow. Thanks!!” (Helen, Year 8 student)

FEBRUARY

Friendship drama ahoy!

9th — A day full of fights! Everyone reckons I said Melissa was a poser when we played hide-and-seek. Leanne had the shits with me after debating too.

10th — We made up but Melissa and Marrianne had a punch-up.

I was trying to be friends with the cooler popular girls at school, who had just “discovered” me.

Big Girl (kinda)

21st — Mum bought me my first bra! I love it!

Yet just days after the getting a bra, I say this about hanging out with my friend:

26th — We played dolls all day. Fun!

In the “Secret Valentine” section of the diary I wrote:

Although I never hang around the boys — it is Sean. God I love that guy. (I loved him? I don’t think we had spoken at this point.)

It makes me sad to read this. We did end up having one awkward pash, which was my first ever kiss. But by the time he was only in his late teens, this boy had died by suicide. I recall him as being very shy and quiet. Tragically, adolescence is a time that may mark the onset of serious depression for some young people; this reminded me to be mindful to watch for the early warning signs. Clinical Professor David Bennet’s book ” I Just Want You To Be Happy” is an outstanding resource on preventing and tackling teenage mental illness.

MARCH

Danni as the boss

13th — We decide to have a Club! It will be called The Aussie 4! We spent all day doing up the cubbie ready for it. I will be the Captain.

The rest of March seems to be almost a catalogue of fast food I loved (“We had Kentucky! Topso! I got the breast piece!” “We had McDonalds! Yummo!”), teachers I loved (“Miss Banting is tops! I love drama!”) and my marks (“A great school day ! I came first in every subject! Hoorah!”)

My goal for next month:  To be popular.

APRIL

Talent quest!

My best friend, a neighbour and my sister and I would have periodic talent quests. Although the competition could hardly be described as fierce, I was elated at my win! I danced to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and assembled all my cuddly toy animals as props. I performed this next to the fountain we had in our courtyard, for added jungle-realism. I set a very high standard for performance that day, I can assure you.

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Me (right) pre-perm at 14 with “Bubby”, my sister.

Dramatic much?

3rd — No one seems to care that I am dying of asthma! Had to go to my Aunty’s to eat Easter eggs.

6th — I think my drama teacher hates my acting lately. 🙁 (I was a star in the school play: I was Mole in Wind In the Willows. Yep, a mole. And yep, the boys did tease me but I didn’t care as I LOVED this role. Mr Mole is hilarity.)

13th — I crammed in the library for a test. I had to. I must do well or I will die.

15th — Worst day of my entire life. Leanne etc all wrote me a letter said they hate me plus they are now playing with my other friends so I have NO ONE! I don’t even know why this is happening to me!

18th — I am really disappointed with my English mark . . . 92/100.  (Disappointed??!!)

MAY

Shopping weirdness

6th — Went shopping and nearly got busted for shop-lifting. We stole breath freshener. I feel really bad now. (Breath Freshener??)

7th — Bought really large knitting needles! Will knit things! Topso!

8th — Bought Mum a spoon for Mother’s Day. Chantielle (my sister) bought her honey. (Lucky. Her!)

Favourite Daydream: To have a spunky boyfriend.

JUNE

Danni as mean girl

14th — I was so slack to Jane as I said Simon Townsend’s Wonder World is going to film my rubber collection and interview me and I will be on TV. This is a lie. She was really hurt but she forgave me luckily.

Impending doom

26th — Went to visit Grandpa. He is very vague and sick.

JULY

Yes, this was the ’80s

1st — The rich kids all went off to the ski-weekend. I talked to the boys out the front of the school with my friends today. But I don’t really talk. I just stand there like a dag.

8th — I am getting a perm. I am very worried. I HOPE it is good. Darryl Somers also wrote to me. Exciting!

9th — My perm is tops! I’m in love with it it is so nice. Everyone at school loves it.

10th — I got my mole costume today! Love it! I’m helping Jane sell Avon. I hope we make a lot of money. A girl called Christine in our grade had sex with her boyfriend Adam. I got the top mark for maths.

19th — We had a mufti-day at school and I wore really nice pink leg warmers.

23rd — We went to a disco and I met a boy named Foxy. I kissed him. I think I am in love!

24th — I think I hate that boy now. (Fickle much?)

My goal for next month: To meet some boys and to be more popular. I love, love, love boys! But none like me! And I am scared of them! Problem!

Autographed pic I received from Daryl Somers. Was I excited much?
Autographed pic I received from Daryl Somers. Quite. The. Moment.

AUGUST

A date with Foxy!

There are many entries in the lead up to this date about Foxy and what I will wear, do, say, etc. Then:

14th — Well it was BORING! We saw Porky’s 2 which was just rude. We went to Mcdonalds which was the best bit. I would have had more fun if I just went with my girls! I spent $8 on boringness! I am never dating again.

18th — I dropped Foxy (yahoo!).

And then, amongst all the expected teen girl stuff comes a disturbing entry about an incident with my father, a sometimes-violent alcoholic.

28th — Mum took me to the markets and bought me cute koala earrings. Dad got drunk and punched me for nothing! It hurt. I hate him.

SEPTEMBER

A trip to Surfers Paradise with the family. Much discussion about rides and food.

Then much despair at the fact that my teachers all think I am not focusing and am “trying to be someone I am not” with my new friends (they were right!). Friends are having sex, smoking . . .

OCTOBER

Trouble looms

No mention of rubbers or school marks this month. I would soon be in Year 9, which used to be considered a notoriously problematic time when many teens went off the rails. Unfortunately, many schools tell me these problems now start in Year 8, because girls are attempting to cope with greater pressures at a younger and younger age.

15th — Pashed Jason twice but I don’t love him or really care if we don’t get together again. Louise F nearly died as she got so drunk the cops called an ambulance. (This all happened at the “alcohol-free” Blue Light Disco the police ran for youth.)

17th — The teachers reckon Marrianne is pushing drugs which is just bull!

NOVEMBER

5th — Tops party! We all got so drunk. We all went for a bush walk and I fell and hit my head which was so funny! I cried as Jazmine went to the toilet 16 times which scared me.

12th — Jane got a hickey!

18th — I wagged school with my friends and they got drunk. I didn’t. It was actually boring. I feel really bad about this (wagging)(This was the first and last time I ever truanted school.)

21st — Saw a plastic surgeon to see if now that I’ve fully grown they can fix my arm. They can’t. ;(

I was very self-conscious about scarring on my arm and neck from severe burns I received as a child. It wasn’t until I was much older, teaching in high school, that I was okay about it.

30th — School disco is dress up. I might go as a Playboy bunny. (OH. MY. LORD!!)

What can I say except that if even I was considering dressing up as a Playboy bunny, we shouldn’t let ourselves get too carried away with despair about the culture our girls are exposed to: there is hope for everyone!

DECEMBER

A lucky escape?

15th — I am practically dying and they might even put me in hospital.

I was truly very ill all month with glandular fever. This seems to me now a stroke of luck, as it meant I stayed out of trouble.

My New Year’s Resolution?

To try VERY hard at school again and not get used by boys.

Reading back over the diary of my 14th year has truly affirmed for me the work I do now. I would have loved Enlighten. I needed Enlighten!

Think back to what life was like for you as a teen too. If you have old diaries, revisit them. What does this reflection teach you about the inner-world of teen girls? What messages do you think girls need to hear – now.

Friends

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