Oh, Boy, Dad, It’s Time to Talk about Girl Stuff

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.

A Second Chance at Fatherhood

Dear Mr. Dad: My daughter is 19 and has been in rehab three times. When she was five, her mother died and my daughter was placed in foster care because I wasn’t mentally stable enough to care for her. She was then adopted by her foster parents, but they divorced. Now I’ve got my life together and she’s coming back to live with me. How do we re-establish trust and rebuild our relationship after all these years? I’m scared and don’t know what to do.

A: Wow, what a difficult situation for both of you. But most of all for your daughter. She lost her mom at a young age and has been shuttled around between different homes and families ever since. You don’t say what kind of addiction issues she had that landed her in rehab so many times, but it’s pretty safe to assume that it has something to do with her unstable life. You also don’t mention whether the two of you had any contact at all over the past 14 years, or whether you’ll be building your father-daughter relationship completely from scratch.

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For Dads, It’s Not Easy Raising Girls

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.