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.