PUBERTY AND HOW TO DEAL WITH IT

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The Independent Online
The facts

The mean age for the first period was around 14 at the start of the century and had reduced steadily to about 12-and-a-half by the late 1970s. This reduction is probably due to better nutrition and health and the landmark of the first period has stayed fairly stable over the past 20 years. Some little girls start theirs much earlier, but this is unlikely to be a trend - it has always happened.

Girls usually begin their growth spurt about two years earlier than boys, meaning that breast development and pubic hair begins between the ages of 9 and 13; often before any formal sex education has taken place, particularly in schools. Young girls are often better communicators than boys and they're more likely to discuss the physical changes involved in growing up, as well as question the presence of sanitary products in the family shopping basket. But not all parents can cope with this sort of interrogation and there is often a fear that the child is too young.

It's good to talk

Unfortunately, rigid and formal "birds and bees" sessions simply don't have as much effect as the gentle but honest answering of casual questions. Not all young people feel confident talking to their parents, so make sure she has got other sources of information and advice she can use if she needs them. Avoiding the issue leaves the children prey to tales behind the bike shed. These are just as dangerous as ever and many young girls learn a distorted view of sex and sexuality which frightens them so much they stop asking their parents questions altogether. And even if you're convinced that your daughter wouldn't be seen dead behind the bike sheds, unless she goes round with her eyes and ears shut, there's no way she can avoid the dreaded media influence.

Telling it straight

Then there are the teenage magazines. I work on one as an agony aunt and know from the letters I receive that there is a great need for straight and factual information. Girls are scared of admitting their ignorance to friends or family and they need some way to check out facts and develop their own system of values. Just because someone asks about sex does not mean to say they are going to go and do it. A recent World Health Organisation survey of sex education proved conclusively that early and full sex education actually delayed the onset of sexual activity. Despite tabloid sensationalism, the majority of young people only start having sex in their late teenage years. If you are not sure what your daughter's school covers in PSE (personal and social education), ask to see the syllabus. All primary schools should now be providing basic information on reproduction and menstruation.

Factfile

Healthwise, the Family Planning Association's bookshop can provide leaflets and books for you and your daughter. Write to Healthwise, FPA, 2-12 Pentonville Road, London N1 7FP, or telephone 0171-837 5432 for a free brochure of publications.

Parent Network offers support for handling the daily ups and downs of family life via local groups. For details send a stamped addressed envelope to Parent Network, 44-46 Caversham Road, London NW5 2DS, or telephone 0171-485 8535.

Parentline maintains a network of 26 groups for parents under stress and a helpline on 01702 559900 (open 9am to 6pm weekdays and 1pm to 5pm Saturdays).

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