How to Avoid Sharks, and other important lessons to help your pre-teen daughter survive puberty

How to help your pre-teen daughter survive puberty
I grew up in a girl-centered household. With only one sister and a single mother, conversations about periods, puberty, cramps, boys and bras were natural. Now that I have two teenage daughters of my own – one well on the downward slope of her teen years and one just getting started – there’s an overabundance of estrogen and all things female in my house (which may or may not explain my husband’s fondness for Jägermeister).

Over the past six years I’ve learned that having pre-teen daughters can be both delightful (sharing clothes! shopping trips! rom-com movies!) and prove to be a challenge (hormones, ’nuff said … and could you please pass the Jäger?).  And as they’ve grown I’ve also come to realize that it’s our job as parents to teach them things far more important than how to give mama a pedicure or how to french-braid their own hair.

As our daughters get older, there are a few things that are vital for them to know so they don’t leave the house looking like a Yeti, smelling like a dead rodent, or even worse, running the risk of being eaten by a shark. And whether they like it or not, you need to be there to guide them through the murky — and sometimes shark infested — waters. 

So for those of you with young girls, take note. For those of you with sons, stop laughing. Despite what you might think, you’re gonna have to wash sheets a lot more times than we will. 


Legs: Around 5th grade your daughter’s little bare legs will start to look like she’s wearing Uggs. 

All the time

When either she becomes self-conscious of it or starts to trap mosquitoes and gnats, it’s time to buy the $2 Raspberry Shave Gel at Target and have a date with her on the side of the bathtub. Ditto for underarms. 

Your mom didn’t let you shave until you were in 7th grade? I don’t care, and believe me, neither do the nasty girls in your daughter’s 5th grade class who are giggling behind her back. It’s not about peer pressure, don’t get me wrong, but if shaving the inch of black fur off her legs is something that makes your daughter feel grown up and like part of the female pack? As difficult as it may be for you, it’s time to start letting her have a say in her own hygiene. 

After all, it is her body. 

Bikini Area:  All girls are different, but after your daughter has started growing hair in places other than her head you can assume that when swimsuit season comes along she’s gonna need some crucial advice. And younger girls not only don’t think of shaving their bikini line, they are horrified when you tell them about it. It won’t be necessary right away, but trust me, you must step in and provide this vital lesson by the time your daughter is about 14 or 15-years-old so she doesn’t appear to be smuggling a Furby into the pool. 

I did it by tossing my teenager a razor, some shaving gel and a tube of Bikini Zone and talking her through it – step by step – through the closed bathroom door, after I’d given her a quick demonstration by wearing my swimsuit bottoms and pantomiming the entire process. Was that awkward, you ask? Not at all, and it also proved that I’d kill if I ever get the card “shaving bikini line” in a game of charades.


There’s a good chance you’ll realize it’s time for your daughter to upgrade from the thin cotton undershirt-looking “bra” covered in comical monkey faces from Justice® way before she does. Let me put it this way: If it starts to look like her shirt was hung on the drying rack by two clothespins right at her chest line, it’s time to go real bra shopping. 

Make it fun. Go to lunch! Find cute, colorful bras that fit. Buy one for yourself while you’re at it! Turn it into a real girls’ day.

And when she makes you keep your eyes trained on the floor the whole time you’re in the dressing room with her (if she’ll even let you in), do it. Don’t sneak a peek. Respect her privacy, adjust the straps, and try very hard not to cry over the fact that she already has bigger boobs than you do.

Periods, cramps and feminine products

Talking to your daughter about these things well before she actually gets her period is certainly helpful and makes it a lot less stressful on her when it actually happens, for both of you. 

Months before the red badge of courage actually appears, make sure to introduce something that will quickly become her new BFF: the pantyliner. Listen, without offering up TMI, if you’re a female in her fertile years you know that there’s a lot more than five days a month when you need a little extra help keeping those panties dry.  Talk to your pre-teen about this. Ask her if she sometimes feels like a human Elmer’s Glue dispenser, tell her it’s normal, and then throw her a pack of pantyliners and tell her not to be stingy with them. Teach her the finer art of washing out her panties when needed. Believe me, that will be a necessary skill to have in the coming years. 

When the pre-period cramps begin, offer Advil, chocolate and a lot of sympathy. And when good ol’ Aunt Flo finally arrives for the very first time, be positive! Do not lament the pain she’s in for for the next 40 years or tell her horror stories of the time you were wearing white shorts at school and your period came unexpectedly. Just lie about how wonderful it is, take her out to a celebratory dinner (“Let’s toast to your fertility!”) and let a day or two pass before you begin using phrases like, “A firecracker in my uterus would hurt less” or “Kill me now.” 

Something that causes a lot of anxiety in pre-teen girls is the million-dollar decision of whether to use pads or tampons. Let me offer my advice. Unless you’re about to take a beach/snorkeling vacation (like we were) and don’t want your daughter to get eaten by a shark, I’d stick with the pad option the first time. Sure, it feels like a diaper (or a “saddle” as my daughter put it), but there are enough emotions she’ll be dealing with that first time without having to tackle the shock and awe of inserting a tampon.

But when it comes time for that, through her decision (or in our case, the shark’s), it’s time once again for a fun game of puberty charades. No matter how horrified your daughter looks as you pantomime the various ways to get that sucker in (one leg on tub, lying on back, etc), stick with it. Trust me, through the eye-rolls and the groans and the occasional running out of the room, she’s watching, learning, and will be damn glad for your honesty — and your mad charades skills — when that bathroom door is closed.

When you’ve thoroughly grossed her out and she musters up the courage to try it herself, show her how the little sucker works (yes, it’s OK to waste one, or two, or three) and give her privacy. When/if her attempts are a failure, just encourage her to give it another shot the next day or the next month. And give her a hug (if she’ll let you). That’s some major shit she’s just gone through.

Midol, Advil, heating pads, washing out those damn spots, what to flush vs. what not to flush, regularly taking out the bathroom garbage and of course, eating copious amounts of Cookie Dough Ice-Cream are all things you’ll need to share and advise on the first few years after your daughter starts riding the crimson wave — with a healthy dose of sensitivity … and humor. 

Blackheads, pimples and acne

Around the same time all of the above is happening, your daughter’s smooth, peaches-n-cream complexion will suddenly give way to clusters of blackheads so ripe you may confuse them with whiskers, and pimples that make you take back every wish you’ve ever made to be a kid again.

While it’s certainly true that one mark of true adolescence is a red polka-dotted face, it doesn’t have to be an accepted norm if it gets out of hand.  A breakout here and there? Of course. And while it can be tempting, resist the urge to actually show her how to pop that white-capped zit on her nose … by actually attempting to pop it on her nose. Trust me on this one.

If a regular practice of face-washing with a good scrub isn’t working (sidenote: buy her a good face scrub and show her how to use it) and the normal monthly breakout crosses the line to full-blown acne, it’s time to seek outside help from a dermatologist.

Listen, we are the first ones to teach our kids that “it isn’t the way you look that matters but what is inside” and that people shouldn’t be judged by their appearance, but there’s no denying that it happens. And if your child’s face (or in my daughter’s case, her forehead, chest and shoulders) look like a swarm of mosquitoes set up camp there for a year, let’s face it, her fantastic personality isn’t the first thing that’s getting noticed. If the acne begins to affect her confidence, it’s time to get help — the whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” thing be damned.

Surviving the pre-teen years with your daughter won’t always be easy. But the bottom line is to talk about the changes they’re going through, make them relatable, make them seem like no big deal (and maybe sometimes acknowledge that they are a very big deal), let them know they can come to you and ask questions or get advice, respect the times they don’t want your advice, have patience, and above all, find ways to laugh about it.

Because really, there’s a whole lot that’s funny about sticking a bullet-shaped wad of cotton up your hoo-ha.


Next in the series: “Kissing frogs ain’t the only way to get warts: Talking to your pre-teen daughter about sex and STDs.”


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  1. Lisa Kanarek on July 7, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Michelle- you have officially made me appreciate the fact that I have two boys and no girls. I enjoy the time I spend with their girlfriends, but I’m relieved I don’t have to show them anything. I suck at charades! All I’ve agreed to do is knock before walking into my sons’ bedrooms. They, in turn, have agreed to do the same. I can only imagine how much it would stunt their growth and their future with women if they walked in at the wrong time (she says while shuttering).

    Your girls are VERY lucky to have a cool mom who knows that growing up is a big deal and involves different stages (some a little more disgusting than others), but makes the whole process easy, painless, and fun.

    • Michelle on July 9, 2014 at 8:24 pm

      Thank you! I’m not entirely sure they appreciate my efforts when I’m laying on the floor with my knees in the air and they’re screaming, but I’m glad you do! 🙂

  2. pamb on July 8, 2014 at 12:50 pm

    My daughter’s underarm hair started coming in in 3rd grade! 3rd! Way too young for shaving. We started with a buffer sponge (useless) and then moved to depilatories (stinky but safe). She took it upon herself to shave in 5th grade, and I was fine with that.

    I don’t want to sound like a commercial, but if you have a European Wax studio in your town (and I’m local, so I know they have them here in MN), their wax is almost painless. Seriously, my now 13 year old was like “that’s it?” when she was done. I’m talking underarms only, though. Legs might be another story. And if they are still Grouponing laser hair removal when she’s old enough, that’s the route we’re going!

    And, my first period happened while we are on vacation in FL. I was NOT going to miss the wave pool, so my mother inserted my first tampon herself. THat’s a mother’s love!

    • Michelle on July 9, 2014 at 8:26 pm

      O.M.G. OMG OMG. She WINS!! That is both fabulous and disgusting all at once! That must’ve been SOME wave pool!
      Haven’t thought about the wax route. Might have to look into it — thanks!!

  3. Deva Dalporto on July 14, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    Such awesome advice. And OMG I am headed for these days any day now and I’M NOT READY!!!!!!!!!!

    • Michelle on July 15, 2014 at 3:54 pm

      You will be, I have faith in you!! The good news is that starting with deodorant and shaving will come waay before tampon insertion 101 so you can work your way up. Plus, wine.

  4. Debbie Milder-Lippert on July 14, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    You are hilarious! Do your kids still speak to you!!!!

  5. NinaN on July 21, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Ugh. My daughters are 10 & 9 and I would just like to keep my head buried firmly in the sand. Or a bottle of wine. I was so relieved when #3 was a boy. Although I’m sure they have their own share of puberty horrors…..

    • Michelle on July 21, 2014 at 9:14 pm

      Like I said, good luck with those sheets. And towels. 😛

  6. Kristen Hudson on September 3, 2014 at 11:58 pm

    My Mom had to trap me in the car for this talk all I remember is trying to to figure out how injured I would get if I jumped ship when we slowed to go over the train tracks…

  7. Frances on September 4, 2014 at 4:47 am

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I have 3 daughters (ages 16, 11 and 8). I LOVED this!

    • Michelle on September 4, 2014 at 1:02 pm

      You’re welcome (three times over!!). So glad you enjoyed it and thanks for reading. Now, start brushing up on your tampon-insertion charades, woman. You’ve got one who might need some help in a couple of years!! 😉

  8. Becca N John Benham on September 5, 2014 at 7:07 am

    I have three daughters (and a son that finds pointing out his sisters acne funny) I’ve been through it all with my eldest. She us fourteen. The other girls are four and seven. Would it be horrid of me to make them go to their big sister for tampon inserting advice? It wasn’t fun the first time around. She was going to a pool party when mother nature dropped the bomb on her… “You want me to stick that where?” I haven’t had to practice my charade skills to teach her how to shave the bikini line, but I suspect that isn’t far off.

  9. Chris on September 5, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    Oh my God, this took me back! I spent hours trying to master tampon jnsertion, now all of that frustration and embarrassment (“Mooooo-oooom, I need some PRIVACY, geez!”) just came rushing back like it was yesterday. I also remeber my mom showing me how to use this “painless” device called the Epilady – painless my ass! Thank goodness my little girl is only 3 and I have a few years. Thanks for the great article!!!

  10. Spidermummy x on November 1, 2014 at 9:04 am

    This is such a great post. I’ve two young daughters and am TERRIFIED of this phase, this information has been locked away and stored. Thank you!

    • Michelle on November 1, 2014 at 10:48 am

      Anything to help you through the murky waters of puberty! You are welcome! And don’t be terrified…just remember to laugh. A lot. 🙂

  11. TaraLee on March 3, 2015 at 8:50 pm

    My oldest girls are well into their twenties now and I don’t remember the horror of tampons etc (probably denial), but acne was such a nightmare for both of them, as well for our two boys. Don’t delay in that dermatology referral, it will save their self esteem. My youngest is a five year old girl, so I guess I will be doing it all over again, but feminine hygiene products have come a long way in only twenty years, so I’m hoping it won’t be so bad (again with the denial)!

  12. Meghan on July 29, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    I wish my mom was like you with this. My mom and I aren’t close at all. I’m turning 15 soon, and I’ve had to figure everything out for myself. I had to ask her a couple times, but she’d just email me a YouTube link or something explaining not so well what I had to do. As for shaving, she gave me the link, a razor, and shaving cream then left me to fend for myself. When I got my period, she had me sleep over at my grandmas house and my gran attempted to help me. Didn’t work so well. Tampons waited till a pool party in 7th grade when I pushed through my embarrassment and asked a friend who wasn’t too bad at charades. I’m not even through being a teenager and I’m pretty sure I have more horror stories than most adults.

    • Michelle on August 5, 2015 at 6:04 pm

      Sorry to hear this. Your mom might not have had it all explained to her as a teen so she’s just uncomfortable and unsure of how to handle it. Maybe you could talk to her about how you feel? However, friends are gold for this, too! Lean on them…or another adult you trust. xo

  13. Meghan on July 29, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    you can imagine, when I got my period I was freaking out. I had no idea what a period was. I never got ‘the talk’. I waited till health class. Still, unfortunately everything I know is from some very kind, sympathetic friends.

  14. Nichole Monique on October 18, 2015 at 4:22 am

    Love this!! We have three girls! 9, 7 and 2…. And I am SO ready for this part of “mommyhood” my mom was awesome about taking to me and giving helpful information/advice. So I had a good role model. Our 9 year old and I have talked about puberty and the joys of growing hair in weird places. We’ve touched briefly on periods.. We’ve already had to do the deodorant wearing talk and the bra shopping. When it comes time for the rest…. I’ve got this. It helps that she’s very open with me, she has no problem coming to me with issues or questions of any sort.

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