Catching Glimpses of a Man in My Teenage Son

I knew it would go quick, but still my mind could never fathom, never fully grasp that this baby would someday become a man.

I catch a glimpse of my son through the dusty blinds in our living room, iPhone wedged in his pocket, the late afternoon sun in his eyes. My son, lean, lanky, and all legs, is outside with a friend.
Foolishly, I refer to it as a play date, ruffling his independent feathers and causing a dramatic eye roll. He corrects me, firmly telling me it’s called hanging out now. He can’t see the lump in my throat or detect my discomfort as I adjust to this new terminology.
Wasn’t he just five the other day, drinking juice from boxes, munching rainbow goldfish, and listening to the high pitched strains of “The Backyardigans”? Now he favors the quick talk-rap tone of “21 Pilots”, walks down to the local deli by himself for chips, and guzzles six Deer Parks a day.
I remember when he was one. A round, tow-headed lump of love balanced on my ample hip in the grocery store. A woman, older by decades, dressed in a pale grey coat, stopped to touch his feet. Fleshy, plump, and irresistible, my son’s toes were often admired while I stood in line to buy puréed apricots and strained peas.
“It goes quite quick, dear,” she said.
I hated that, hated when people told me how fast time goes when there is a child in your life. As if there was something I could do to slow it down, something I could do to drag out the years so they wouldn’t slip by me in a blur of tantrums, spit ups, and nap times. I knew it would go quick, but still my mind could never fathom, never fully grasp that this baby would someday become a man.
Some days I wanted it to go quick. To be free from the demands of a needy infant, ornery toddler, insolent youth. Always needing something. A diaper change. A new plastic toy. A download for his iPod.
He’s not so needy anymore. I’m adjusting.
I peer at my man-child through the dusty blinds. The glint of early evening light hits the slope of his angular nose. Where is that basic button, the nose every toddler has? Now there are tilts and indentations where there used to be podgy flushed cheeks. His voice, once soft like a marshmallow, has become edged with roughness.
I remember when he learned to crawl. The knees of his celadon onesie stained with grass, the furrow between his blonde brows deep with determination. Go! Go! I said, and he was off, like a lightening bug out of a paper cup. He liked that taste of freedom. I could barely keep up.
As I watch through the dusty blinds, the autumn sun highlights the soft down of hairs sprouting above his triangle tipped lips. The girls are starting to take notice. I watch his gait as he swaggers down the hill toward the deli in loose jeans and Vans – cool, confident steps and a wry smile on his face.
My son likes this freedom. I’m adjusting.
I adjust when he wants to Snapchat with his peers instead of talk to his weary, frayed-around-the-edges mom. I adjust when he coolly asks me to borrow my tweezers so he can pluck his fuzzy unibrow. I adjust when I ask if he needs help with something, and he answers, “No.”
Because that is what mothers do. We love, and we guide, and we teach, and we show, and then we must pray and let go.
That letting part. That takes some adjusting.
This piece originally appeared in The Elephant Journal.

How to Recognize if Your Teen Needs Mental Health Care

How is a parent to know the difference between normal developmental friction and mental illness? Here are some key things to look for.

This is a question I get a lot. I hear it from my patients, I hear it from my students, and I hear it from listeners who call into “About Our Kids,” my show on SiriusXM’s Doctor Radio. It’s a tough one, too, because becoming an adolescent does mean, to some extent, pushing boundaries. It’s one of the ways that adolescents learn about this world and their role in it – they challenge the rules that parents and teachers and society lay down. Driven by changes in their brains and hormones that most often take teens by surprise, our kids rebel a bit (and sometimes more than a bit) in their quest to prepare for adulthood and independence.
Although often very frustrating for the adults in their lives, this occasional defiance is an absolutely necessary part of growing up. The world is going to toss our kids a lot of curve balls in the years ahead. “Hey, nobody said life would be easy!” Don’t we tell our kids that all the time? In their normative quest for independence, our lovable, adorable prepubertal children will become, at least occasionally, surly teens.
But let’s be clear – while some tension between parents and teens is a normal part of growing up, mental illness is a whole other thing entirely. We now know that 50 percent of all mental illness sets on by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24. We know that one-third of all teens will develop a diagnosable anxiety disorder during high school, and we know that one-sixth will develop major depressive disorder. In other words, these disorders are much more common than once believed. So, how is a parent to know the difference between normal developmental friction and mental illness? Here are some key things to look for.
Parents should always be on the lookout for abrupt changes in their teens’ behavior, thinking, and emotions. Is your child hanging out with a new group of friends? Or is your child not hanging out with anyone at all? Is your child meeting all of his or her normal developmental milestones, like going to school, completing the homework, and eating and sleeping the usual amount? Have there been any changes in your teens’ grades and extracurricular interests and activities? Is your child expressing any disturbing thoughts, memory or attention troubles, major shifts in mood, high levels of unfounded anxiety, or not communicating with you at all?  Does your child appear, smell, speak, or dress differently than usual? These are the primary tell-tale signs of a change in functioning that might indicate mental illness is fomenting.
As common as mental illness is among adolescents, it’s a travesty that only about one in five youth with a diagnosable disorder receives care; and among these, only about two percent receive a treatment known to be effective. This happens for three primary reasons: First, we don’t have enough well-trained child and adolescent mental health practitioners. Second, we don’t provide care where we have access to kids. In fact, only about 10 percent of the nation’s 80,000 or so public schools provide any mental healthcare. And third, both kids and parents stigmatize those with mental illness, which makes it much more difficult for people to accept care, even when it’s available and desperately needed. We don’t know everything about mental illness, but we now know enough to treat the majority of troubles effectively and to vastly improve the life trajectories of affected teens.
Of course, we must remember that not every problem spells mental illness. Our adolescents sometimes act out for just a few hours or show brief changes in behavior for all sorts of reasons.  Sometimes they’re under-slept or over-caffeinated or both. Sometimes they’re stressed out by their homework or struggles with friends. And sometimes, they’re on a bender; in fact, more than 25 of high school students have binge drunk in just the past 14 days (defined as having five or more drinks in a two-hour time period). While parents would never condone these behaviors, they are all too common and not generally indicative of an emotional disturbance.
If you’re concerned about your child, or concerned about how you’re parenting your child, I strongly urge you to seek professional help. A child psychologist or child psychiatrist is your best bet. Go in with an open mind and an honest report. Believe me, we’ve seen it all. Your story won’t surprise us, and we won’t judge you, your child, or your parenting style. We’re here to help, and we all need help sometimes.

I Guess We'll Survive the Teenage Years

I don’t think I’m going to survive the teenage years. I know this is the same thought that millions of parents have had throughout the ages.

I don’t think I’m going to survive the teenage years. I know this is the same thought that millions of parents have had throughout the ages, but it’s going to be me. I’m going to be the case study that will be used to teach other parents about to embark on this roller coaster ride that is adolescence.

For years while my children were younger, my mother-in-law would tell me that each of her three children had left home one day to be replaced by aliens. Aliens who looked and sounded like her children, but who bore little resemblance to the children she had loved their entire lives.

I would laugh, and she would laugh, but there was always a wistful glint in her eyes, and a slight sadness and longing in her voice as she spoke of that time. Then she would give her head a little shake and warn me, “Just wait. You’ll see.”

I was naïve enough to think that it would never happen to me.

Oh, how wrong I was.

We’ve been in the teenage years for over four years now. Our oldest is 17, followed by a 15-year-old, and twin 13-year-olds. We have been relatively lucky with the eldest; he seems to have sidestepped most of the teen angst that strikes just after that 13th birthday rolls around. He just moves through the world, following his own beat, and not really caring much about what others think of him. There have been a few father/son talks about girls, school, and what the future might hold for him, but other than that, he’s been relatively easy to deal with as teenagers go.

The 15-year-old, always considered the “calm” one in the family, is starting to show signs of hormones going into overdrive. Outside of the house, she is friendly, outgoing, kind, generous, and giving. She is finding her voice, even if that voice sometimes screeches so loudly that even the dogs run for cover. However, where once my beautiful little girl couldn’t wait to share every single thing about her day with me, I now have to play detective and drag the answers from her.

Then there are the twins.

We’d been told that, because they are fraternal, our twins would be as similar as any other brother and sister. The likelihood of them sharing that “twin” bond that identical twins seem to have would be low. They would interact the way other siblings do.

When they were born, life became chaotic and messy, a blur of diaper changes and feedings, all while trying to ensure the two older children didn’t feel neglected or abandoned. But they could be put into cribs or playpens, where they could be safely contained (read: they couldn’t wreak havoc). For a few short months, the “lump” stage as my husband and I were fond of calling it, these two slept in the same crib, co-existing peacefully. This lasted until the afternoon they were taking a nap, and I went in to check on them. The youngest, our sweet baby boy, was kicking his sister in the head as they slept. I called my husband in, and we moved the babies apart, only to watch as our son moved back into position so he could begin kicking our baby girl again.

Not much has changed in the 13 years since, with one exception. Now, the sweet little girl fights back, and she’s not so sweet all the time.

These four young people used to get along so well that strangers would comment on their interactions. We would regularly be asked how we could manage four children so close in age. We would laugh lightly and reply, “Oh, it’s not so hard. They get along really well. It’s like they are their own club.”

I knew that each of them was unique, that they all had separate personalities, and that, some day, those personalities might clash.

I was not prepared for the all-out warfare that is sometimes waged between them. Nor was I ready for the rolling eyes, the sarcastic tones in their voices when they speak to us or to each other, or for the closed bedroom doors so they can have privacy. I wasn’t ready to be rebuffed when I try to hug them, or for the one word answers when I ask about their day. Nor was I prepared for the infuriatingly insolent looks my babies would point in my direction when they want to tell me off, but don’t use their words to do so.

I wasn’t ready to hear, “As long as you live under our roof, you will follow our rules,” or the infamous, “Because I said so!” and I’ve recoiled from the shock of hearing my own mother and father come rolling out of my mouth.

I’ve read that the logical part of the brain is not fully developed in humans until we reach our early twenties. This is something I need to constantly tell myself when the questions of “Where should I put this?” come at me and I want to scream, “In the garbage can!” Where else would you put the garbage? I want to ask them. I shake my head when the standard response is, “Oh. Yeah.” I mutter darkly, “You know, there is a reason why some animals destroy their young,” a statement that my children find amusing, little realizing some days how close they are to Mama completely losing her mind.

They don’t seem to know that the hormonal swings that affect them, making them sweet and kind one minute and screaming banshees the next, make me want to run into my closet and hide. Or how much strength it takes to simply stand there and tell them that I love them, even as I face the scathing retorts of “No, you don’t,” because computers and television sets are not allowed in their bedrooms. (We have explained that part of our reasoning for that rule is that we fear we would never see them again.)

When they were younger and sometimes angry with me, they would yell at me, “You’re not my friend anymore!” and I would agree with them, telling them, “No, we are not friends. I am your mother. We can be friends when you’re grown up.” They’re still too young for us to be friends, and I don’t want to be one of their peers. They still need my husband and I to be their parents. They need to feel that safety net of knowing that we will be there for them, to catch them and help them if life gets messy, even as they try to push us away while they try to grow up.

Some day, my husband and I will be mourning the loss of these days. All too soon, the house will be too quiet, rooms will be cleaned and stay that way for weeks on end, the fights over who gets to use the bathroom first in the morning will be done, and I will wander from room to room wondering where on earth the time has gone. I will stare at their pictures on the walls, desperate for another chance to hold them in my arms while they sleep. I will look back on their fighting and the chaos, and I will smile, wishing I had it to do all over again.

So while the aliens seem to have the upper hand right now, I know that somewhere inside those familiar yet changing faces are the glorious children I have been gifted.

As long as I don’t actually eat them, we might just survive after all.

The One Sex Talk Upgrade Your Kids Want

The sex talk has been making all parties involved uncomfortable for generations, but to the great relief of parents, there’s a revolution underway.

The birds and the bees. The talk. The sex talk. Its lore runs deep through American culture, from hilariously uncomfortable movies and TV shows to an entire genre of books devoted to preparing for or completely replacing it. Indeed, the sex talk has been making all parties involved uncomfortable for generations, but to the great relief of parents, there’s a revolution underway.

The sex talk as a process, not a milestone

These days, more and more often, the sex talk is happening earlier and more gradually. My four- and five-year-olds can already describe the basic ways that babies begin to grow and are born. They can identify their own body parts by the appropriate names. They can and do ask me any question that crosses their minds about sexuality, anatomy, or biology, and I’m not alone in my matter-of-fact responses.    

The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that parents start “early parental discussions” about sexuality at home, using opportunities such as the birth of a sibling to answer children’s questions “fully and accurately.” Similarly, a recent study out of Georgetown University suggests that formal sexual education through schools worldwide should begin at age 10, including information about contraception, sexual orientation, and consent.   

By the time your child is a teen, you might wonder what’s left to talk about. Do you really need to sit down and review where babies come from? If you started talking about condoms and birth control when she was 10, does she need to hear it for the 20th time again at age 16?

Maybe, but that’s not all. To really amp up your sex talk for the 21st century teen, new research suggests it’s not sex itself that needs more airplay.

Change your sex talk to a love talk

By shifting the sex talk earlier, we create an opportunity with our teens to focus more on the emotional side of sex and romance. If you want to set your teen up for a lifetime of healthy relationships and a positive attitude towards sex, you need to shift your teen’s sex talk to a love talk.

As part of a recent national survey conducted by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, over 3,000 teens and young adults from across the country shared their perspectives about the current culture of young people’s romantic and sexual experiences. Through formal interviews and informal conversations with these young people, along with their teachers, sports coaches, parents, and counselors, Harvard researchers wrote a new report titled “The Talk: How Adults Can Promote Young People’s Healthy Relationships and Prevent Misogyny and Sexual Harassment.”

One recurring sentiment shared by most of the teens and young adults surveyed was that the current version of the sex talk doesn’t cover what they really want to hear. Instead, they want to learn more from their parents about the emotional side of relationships, including how to have mature relationships, how to navigate the early stages of a relationship, and how to cope with break ups or hurt feelings.

In short, today’s teens want to know how to nurture young love and bounce back from a broken heart, and they want to hear it from us, their parents.   

How to have the love talk

You can get the conversation started by talking about what being in love means to you. Share your experiences of falling in love and of having your heart broken. Let your kids learn from your mistakes in hopes that they won’t have to make the same ones. Be open about your past romantic relationships, and tell them what worked and what didn’t.

Many young people think they’re in love, when really they’re just caught up in physical attraction or lust. Talk openly with your teens about the difference between love, attraction, and infatuation. Let them know that all of these powerful feelings are normal, but not all of them mean they’re in love.

Encourage your child to identify what he or she finds attractive in a person and emphasize that attraction should be based at least in part on qualities like kindness, honesty, and selflessness. Many other qualities can inspire strong feelings, such as being physically attractive, seeming mysterious, or having a “bad” persona, but none of these should be the basis for loving someone.

In addition, talk about what healthy, loving relationships look like. Again, draw from your own experiences or use examples from TV shows or pop culture. Point out relationships that seem to be working and point out those that seem unhealthy. Ask your teen to consider how each member of the relationship feels and how they make each other feel.

Finally, be open about the fact that nearly all healthy relationships experience stumbling points and go through both easy and difficult times. Reassure your teen that if both members of the relationship work to maintain it and make sacrifices for one another, they can persevere. If only one person is willing to do these things, it isn’t fair and the love may not be reciprocal.

Teaching your teen about love might seem like a tall order but if, like the sex talk, you start the love talk early and have it frequently, you’ll raise a kid who knows how to build healthy, loving relationships and how to cope when young love doesn’t work out.

As Harvard psychologist and researcher Rick Weissbourd notes, “It may be the most important thing we do in life; learn how to love and be loved.”

Think Beyond the Maxipad: How to Help Your Modern Teen Manage Her Period

Today’s teenagers have a wide variety of options when it comes to managing their periods.

Women and girls have been dealing with periods since the beginning of time. From mystical powers to a well-understood scientific annoyance, the miracle of becoming a woman has a fascinating evolution.
Women in ancient Egypt are credited with making the first tampons out of rolled papyrus and other types of grasses.
Ancient Greeks are said to have made their tampons out of lint wrapped around small pieces of wood.
In Roman times, periods were associated with mystery, magic, and even sorcery. A Roman author wrote, “Hailstorms … whirlwinds and lightening even, will be scared away by a woman uncovering her body while her monthly curses are upon her.”
Early Mayans believed that menstruation originated as a punishment after the Moon goddess slept with the Sun god. Do not mess with Goddesses.
In Europe in the 1800s, British Medical Journal published a statement saying that menstruating women were medically unable to successfully pickle meat. Seriously, who pickles meat anyway?
And one more fun fact: When Judy Blume released “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” it was the first book to mention a girl getting her first period. This book was published in 1970! We sent a guy to the moon only one year before we were okay mentioning periods in a book written for girls. Periods have been misunderstood, shamed, and secreted away for thousands of years.
Considering the first period products were rolled grasses, we have not come that far. A tampon is slightly more comfortable than a piece of wood wrapped in lint but woman can still die from Toxic Shock Syndrome, pads are still bulky, and who hasn’t had an unplanned bikini wax from those sticky wings?
I do believe the teens of modern day are leaving a mark of their own on the history of periods. They are bringing humor and an openness never before seen in the history of menstruation. Teens are refusing to hide in shame, or stop doing things they love. Instead of quietly unwrapping a pad in the school bathroom, teens are proudly grabbing their period bags and walking with heads held high into the bathrooms. Not only are teens laughing about the good, the bad, and the ugly of periods, they are changing the demand in the market. They want comfort, coverage, convenience, and environmental consideration.
Here are four products that are slightly more comfortable than what Ancient Egyptian teenagers used.

1 | The menstrual cup

Once teens get past the “where do I put that thing” horror, the cup reveals itself as an environmentally friendly alternative to pads and tampons. These reusable, bell shaped cups are made out of silicone and are worn internally and collect rather than absorb menstrual flow.
Menstrual cups have actually existed since the 30s but have taken a long time to become mainstream. Leave it to teenagers to buck the system!
Note: There is a learning curve to using cups. They require teens to get up close and personal with their body and they are not easy to get in or out.
Cups cost between $30 and $40 dollars but can be reused for many years. There is virtually no risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome. They can be worn for up to 12 hours at a time, while swimming and sleeping. They come in many colors and sizes specifically designed for teens.
Check out The Lily Cup, Femmy Cycle, and the Lena Cup.

2 | Period panties

Period Panties are basically super absorbent underwear that take the place of a tampon or pad. They are super thin (so no diaper butt) and come in many styles/colors/designs to fit any booty perfectly.
This underwear needs to be rinsed in cold water after use and then simply run through a regular load of laundry. The only catch is that they need to be hung to dry.
Period panties are a great option for teens who aren’t quite ready to explore all of their lady bits and aren’t ready for adventures in inserting and retrieving. Period Panties even have a line of swim wear so every teen can rock the pool or beach with confidence.
Teens may like Knixteen, a period panty designed specifically for teens. Their website states that their panties are to be worn in the days leading up to their periods as a backup – with a pad or tampon on the heaviest days – or as an option on the lightest days. They are priced at $17 per pair.
Knixteen has a teen-friendly website that answers period questions and even allows teens to send an email to their parents with size and style to make ordering and conversations about periods even easier.
Be sure to check out THINX, too. These cost a bit more per panty but can be worn instead of a pad or tampon. They offer period panties of all sizes and shapes and they are also doing great things around the world with their THINX Foundation. They are partnering with grass roots organizations to educate and empower girls and women across the globe about female health and reproduction, eliminate the shame associated with menstruation, and lower our combined carbon footprint. Girls across the world should have the power to manage their monthly periods with dignity.

3| Sea sponge

If you and your teen are super adventurous you can try a Sea Sponge. Yep. An actual sponge harvested from the Mediterranean Sea. These gals come in many different sizes and can even be trimmed for a perfect fit. These sponges are 100 percent natural and environmentally friendly and can be rinsed and reused many times.
The downside is that teenagers in particular aren’t as comfortable with their bodies and have difficulty retrieving the sponge after use.

4| Reusable pads

Washable pads are made of absorbent cotton and are used much like a disposable pad. They can be rinsed and then washed for multiple uses. Lunapads have great starter kits and accessories in fun colors and patterns.

Honoring the Sacredness of Your Daughter's First Period

We don’t have to have a party to honor our daughter’s first period, but treating it as nonchalantly as a nosebleed misses an opportunity.

The spring after my daughter Anna turned 13 and got her period, I invited close adult women friends over for a ziti dinner to celebrate this turning point in her life. My husband took our younger daughter out of the house so it would be a special “older girl” event. We sat in a circle and shared memories of getting our periods and also shared favorite memories about my daughter.

While a little embarrassed, Anna seemed to enjoy it. Perhaps it wasn’t full of instruction or deep meaning like other rituals, but it made a special memory for her. I also hoped that it sent the message that she was welcomed into the world of womanhood and that the changes in her body were to be honored and celebrated, not something to feel ashamed about. After the celebration, my younger daughter Katie stated quite seriously that when it was her turn, she wanted macaroni and cheese, not ziti.

Soon it will soon be Katie’s turn, so I’ve been thinking more about menarche and how other families might be observing this important and often frightening time of life. Even though many of the taboos about talking about our bodies have broken down, menstruation is still generally talked about privately and in hushed tones. We usually use euphemisms and funny phrases like “on the rag,” “that time of the month,” or “a visit from Aunt Flo.”

Most girls nowadays learn about menstruation and puberty through a book, perhaps a talk with Mom, an older sister or friend, and at school assemblies. Yet as much as 10 percent of American girls are clueless about what’s happening to them when they get their first period, according to Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, authors of “Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation.” While the body-shaming of yesterday doesn’t happen as often (we hope) in America today, menstruation is treated as, at best, a problem of hygiene and mood swings.

The scant research on the topic shows that girls’ attitudes about menarche and menstruation seem to be overall negative. Kim McClive-Reed, LMSW, PhD, a social psychologist, notes that one problem in these studies is in the kinds of questions, since they’re focused on symptoms and worries. One study that asked more positive questions garnered an attitude that viewed menstruation as more of a normal, healthy part of being a woman.

Also, she notes, the age of menarche has gone down, which means girls are going through this transition at younger ages than ever. The studies show a correlation between negative attitudes and this downward trend in age. Perhaps this indicates a need for earlier preparation and education, and a re-affirming of the positive sides of this transitional time.

Why do we find it so hard to talk about menstruation? While some of the negative attitudes and taboos around menstruation are most certainly because of a long, entrenched history of body shaming and fear of women’s power and fertility, some of it certainly also comes from a feminist desire to downplay what might be seen as an essentialist, traditional understanding of a girl’s development.

In other words, we tend to want to show appreciation and positivity for something a girl has done (like obtaining her driver’s license or graduating from high school) rather than something that simply “happens” to her because she’s female. But even this well-meaning approach can have unwanted consequences: Marianne Williamson has reflected that growing up, she realized that she felt loved for what she did, not for simply being who she was.

While some of the approaches to menarche in different cultures are frankly frightening – like cutting open the abdomen to encourage fertility – many other cultures offer an array of more positive, life-affirming ways to mark a girl’s menarche. Best-selling wellness author Dr. Christiane Northrup supports the idea of a positive, personalized coming-of-age tradition for our daughters. She points to examples of positive rituals in indigenous cultures and shares examples of ways other women and girls have observed this turning point. A rite of passage acknowledges that this is a time when “explosive energies of individuation that are released at puberty require some kind of container in which they can be channeled constructively.” 

Northrup also believes this is a lack that teens feel acutely in our current culture. “In the absence of culturally-approved vision quests, meaningful coming-of-age ceremonies, or genuine tests of physical and psychological strength, too many young teens fill the void with drugs, alcohol, dangerous relationships, or compulsive consumerism.”

Some of the ways that other cultures, like in rural India, Bali, and Ghana, have celebrated menarche include ritual bathing, dressing the girl up in jewels and fine garments, having a feast or party, and showering the girl with gifts. In other cultures, girls might spend time with an older female relative. Still other traditions include physical feats, like the Nootka Indians, who, according to Stein and Kim, row the girl out to sea and require her to swim back to shore, where her family and friends cheer her return.

Perhaps we don’t have to have a big party to honor this time of our daughters’ lives, but simply shrugging our shoulders and treating it as nonchalantly as a nosebleed ignores the very real way that the experience of menarche lays the foundation for how a girl feels about herself for the rest of her life.

A mother’s attitude “sets the tone for how we embrace, or subtly (and not-so-subtly) reject, our awesome but culturally taboo creative powers as women,” notes Dr. Marcy Axness, author of “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers.” A positive, affirming ritual, whether it’s formal or informal, can help convey the message that getting your period is a time to honor yourself and your own cycles, rather than something to be ashamed of or simply “deal with.”

I can’t say my daughter has come to be fascinated with her period and loudly proclaims when it’s her time, or that she’s become a blogger for The Red Web. But hopefully at least, she can look back at least one bright spot when she felt welcomed, loved, and honored, and can re-visit some of those rituals, either for herself, or perhaps, for her own daughter. I look forward to getting her input as we prepare to acknowledge her younger sister’s coming of age. And of course, we’ll have macaroni and cheese.

Feminine: The Original F Word

Let’s face it, the word feminine has baggage. Not only has it been hijacked by the tampon industry, it can be downright derogatory in certain contexts.

I’m in the shoe store with my daughter. We’re shopping for sandals she can wear to a wedding this summer. She holds up a black, strappy number with a three-inch heel.

“No way,” I say. “One wrong move and you’d twist an ankle.”

Young enough to value mobility above all else, she puts it back, and I show her what I like: a sturdy, white flat with supportive arches.

“Boring.”

“Okay,” I say. “Maybe something a little more feminine?”

Feminine?! She recoils at the word. Anything – even boring or dangerous – is preferable to feminine. My daughter, who is on the cusp of pubescence and therefore the cusp of full-blown self-consciousness, shuns makeup and styled hair, thinks her school’s dress code “lacks modesty,” and bristles if you call her pretty. Along with a growing number of girls her age, she rejects the stagnancy of pink culture and pursues a more accurate gender representation. She recognizes it’s not the color per se, it’s the stereotyping that accompanies it: Boys get comic books, girls get emojis; boys get sports, girls get dolls; boys get dirty, girls hide imperfections. To her, everything deemed feminine is one-dimensional, fragile, and something to passively admire. While I wouldn’t describe her as a Tomboy or even androgynous, she prides herself on being determinedly not feminine.

In the case of the shoes, I refrain from pointing out that her ankle-sprainers are more girlish than my sensible picks, for I well know how inconsistencies and contradictions exemplify the experience of growing up female, when you have only two choices and neither is quite right. Instead, I blandly explain that feminine just means you are female, which is nature’s way of distinguishing gender, and the word feminine is rooted in the Old French, femelle from the Latin, femina…but she is not swayed by the etymology. She wanders into the middle aisle, where the store is genetically split, symbolically flanked by gray and navy-blue function on one side and hot-pink form on the other.      

Let’s face it, the word feminine has baggage. Not only has it been hijacked by the tampon industry, it can be downright derogatory in certain contexts. Feminine has been married into phrases like feminine wiles, feminine guiles, feminine mystique, feminine hygiene, feminine products, feminine odor, and (gasp) feminine itch. When used to describe anything considered traditionally male, like athletic prowess or military might, being feminine is the ultimate insult. Like other well-intentioned euphemisms in the commercial realm – casket or toilet, for instance – the word itself has descended below the concept it replaced.

But is it beyond redemption? Unlike more blatantly offensive gender-derived terms (wench, hussy, spinster, bitch, faggot, etc.), feminine hasn’t passed the point of no return. Though boys snicker in embarrassment when heading up certain aisles in the drugstore and bookstores sanction related material to the far back corner, the word hasn’t delved into the obscene. To both women and men, femininity still has many good connotations: softness, sensitivity, gentleness, beauty.

Language is representational, but it is fluid and ever-changing. Its own transience lies in usage, where ambiguity allows for subtle shifts in meaning. Language represents but it also defines, and words can change our perception of the very thing they symbolize. Continual proximity will forge associations, both good and bad. Consider the words Nazi, communist, or fascist: The accompanying shameful history is what depraves these words and not simply their political origin. Conversely, words like Bohemian, waif, and Gypsy, once pejorative terms, now invoke a sense of whimsy.

Abandoning femininity is impractical, and we don’t have the luxury of controlling its fate. So how are we supposed to integrate feelings about a word that derives meaning from social and biological constructs, implies weakness, menstruation, and nefarious deceit, yet also describes our very essence? More pointedly, how do we override these learned denotations and separate them from our identity? Like my daughter, we are conflicted. Sometimes we want to be feminine, choose feminine, wear feminine, we just don’t want to be called feminine – or at least that kind of feminine. It’s a standoff of sorts, with a continuously shifting boundary.   

We’re left with one option: embrace the word feminine in all its linguistic glory. Own it, take it back, use it with civility, and don’t use it in disgrace. Use it poetically, use it only for science, use it clinically, practically, whatever. Just don’t align it with the levied flaws of gender. And pick out some damn shoes.

In the car on the way home, after agreeing on leather T-straps with an ornate buckle, I launch the comeback campaign for the “F” word, beginning with my daughter.

“Did you notice the clever wording on that billboard back there? Very feminine.”

She turns, “The pink one? For breast cancer?”

It had been an advertisement for the engineering department at the university and admittedly not feminine, but making repeated connections is how we learn. Language moves at glacier speed anyways, and we have quite a ways to go.

Ah Push It, Push It Real Good, and Other Life Lessons From “Glee”

While initially I was hesitant to allow her to watch “Glee”, I realized she was learning things that mere conversations could not impart.

“Mom, do you and Dad do the sex to this song?”
My daughter shouted this question over the blaring music during a recent spontaneous dance party. The song in question was “Push-It” by Salt-N-Pepa. At the age of 12, she has cultivated a love for music from the ’80s and ’90s thanks to her newfound love, the TV show, “Glee”.
I never imagined I would be that mother who allowed her child to learn about the birds and the bees or other important life lessons from television. Nevertheless, here I am trying to figure out how to turn “Push-It” into a teachable moment, but I can’t stop laughing.
I have never been shy about talking about sex with either of my girls. I used the anatomical names for all their body parts, much to my mother’s horror. The first time my mom heard me say “vagina” when referring to my daughters “private spot” she nearly fainted. My mom never spoke to us about such things.
Mom wasn’t a prude per say. To her credit, she did try to engage me in “the talk” during one very uncomfortable walk on a spring day when I was about my daughter’s age. I remember feeling my heart race and my hands become moist with nervous sweat as I anticipated the words about to spill from Mom’s lips. I knew they were going to be about puberty and sex. My pace increased from a casual stroll to a speed walk. Not able or willing to keep-up, my mom got the message and dropped the subject, never to bring it up again.
Fast forward three decades: I am the mom that must have those potentially uncomfortable talks with my girls. Stories of girls and boys engaging in oral sex on the school bus as early as fourth grade propelled me to be open and upfront on the subject of sex with my girls from the moment tampon dispensers existed in public women’s restrooms.
My ploy was to start early so I could ease into the taboo subject while making them believe that talking about sex was as normal as talking about what we might eat for dinner. Of course, my penchant for making everything into a joke with carefully placed sarcasm made this goal a challenge.
My older daughter took sex talk in stride and seemed to grasp the concepts. Now, well into her teen years, she understands all the innuendos my husband and I can’t resist using. We love the “that’s what she said” phrase and use it often. She laughs with us, feigning understanding of our more obscure sex references.
My younger daughter has remained more innocent and unaware. She gets that we are talking about “the sex thing,” but has no idea what we are really saying. While she knows the anatomical names for all things related to sex and sexuality, she refuses to utter them. She insists on referring to her period as “the thing.” Vagina and penis are referred to as the “girls down there” and the “boys down there.”
Of course, being the obnoxious, instigators we are, as soon as she uses these invented terms, my husband and I chase her around the house saying “penis, vagina, period” over and over as she runs, covering her ears, and screaming in mock horror. Ahh, the good times we have torturing our daughter with sex words.
Wait, who is the child?
To complicate matters more, my daughter does not just have an aversion to talking about sex. She has trouble reading and understanding social cues and accessing and using her language skills appropriately. We suspect she may be on the mild end of the autism spectrum. Though she is immature in these ways, her body is in full bloom.
Like so many girls, she reached full puberty early. Her body is curvy and lovely. If she ever realizes how attractive she really is and starts to dress and groom herself in such a way that others will notice, too, we may be in trouble. Big trouble.
Recently, we visited a developmental pediatrician who expressed the same worries. He instructed us to talk with her about sex openly and often. He spotted the same characteristics in her we recognized as worrisome. Only after knowing her for a few minutes, he became protective of her, which was sweet. We have taken his advice seriously (well, as seriously as two sarcastic, silly adults can) and talk about sex, a lot.
While initially I was hesitant to allow her to watch “Glee”, I realized she was learning things that mere conversations could not impart. Like many people on the autism spectrum, she is a visual learner. She also learns with repetition, lots of repetition. Music and movement, her greatest loves, aid in her ability to comprehend and remember. Watching these shows over and over (thank you, Netflix), which she is motivated to do thanks to the musical component, teaches her way more about sex than my words and explanations ever could.
Many important themes and scenarios are played out in “Glee”. She watches as a teenage girl struggles with pregnancy and the boys who are the “baby daddies.” She has learned about people using sexuality to entice and hurt others. She has added to her knowledge regarding homosexuality. She has learned about birth control. She has learned about broken hearts. She has learned about all the good and the bad about being a sexualized adolescent.
Inevitably, she is filled with questions about what is happening between the characters. She relays the scenarios to us, asking pointed questions. These questions lead to in-depth conversations about choice, love, birth-control, and saying “no.”
Even the less often heard topics of knowing that sex should be enjoyable, that woman should gain as much pleasure from the sex act as men, and that having sex to make a boy like you is not the best choice become fodder for dinner table conversations. My husband likes to point out that teen “boys don’t think with their brains” which is the only thing he knows for sure about the topic of adolescent sexuality.
The male lead, Cory Monteith committed suicide, which allowed us to talk about depression, substance abuse, and drug addiction. The homosexual themes have helped her understand the diversity of sexuality in the world. The show addresses marriage, bullying, and other topics that can be hard to bring-up in casual conversation.
So now, we blast music from “Glee”, and spontaneous dance parties to songs like “Push-It” break out. As my daughter claps, laughs, and dances her way through the soundtrack, she often hits the pause button as the song reminds her of a question she had about the show. I think she is starting to understand her sexuality and, better yet, her right to control her body.

The Art of Letting Go

The undeniable shift from child to teen arrived unexpectedly, furiously, with no clear warning, despite the age and all of the obvious signs.

Having run an elementary and middle school, I’ve spent years observing the process of growing up. I’ve also supported parents in their journeys each step of the way, which left me feeling like I had a keen sense of how the parent-child relationship worked.

As my own kids are now surpassing the age of my perceived expertise, I find myself seeking guidance from the parents who survived the teenage years unscathed (if there’s such a thing). You know the saying, “the cobbler’s kids have no shoes…”

Spring brought the first of it, the undeniable shift from child to teen. It arrived unexpectedly, furiously, with no clear warning, despite the age and all of the obvious signs. My innocent child became more confident and more confrontational. More hungry, more distant, more independent, and more defiant.

Gone were the nighttime snuggles and secrets. Gone were the homework sessions completed (obediently) with care. Gone was my control.

Spring was turbulent. I hadn’t expected the changes (really!?), so I responded with fear – a sure-fire way to screw everything up.

I was hanging on to any control I had, which was not much. My relationship with my teen turned from one of my greatest joys to one that ached of loss. We were fighting, frustrated, and neither of us was backing down.

One day, lightning-quick, I jolted back to reality. I was not the parent I wanted to be, nor one that I recognized. I realized that if I wanted to maintain the trust I’d worked so hard to build, I needed to grow along with my child.

I had a list of needs that were all my own, and not his.

  • I need to let go of control
  • I need to trust the child I raised
  • I need to accept that he is changing
  • I need to let go of control
  • I need to remember he’ll come back to me
  • I need to stop nagging
  • I need to let go of control
  • I need to let him make mistakes
  • I need to support him when he falls
  • I need to let go of control
  • I need friends to talk to
  • I need to appreciate who he’s becoming
  • I need to let go of control
  • I need to be calm
  • I need to walk away when I need a break
  • I need to let go of control

In that sharp, transformative instant, I let go.

He is thirteen and we have many years to go, but in small, comforting ways, this turmoil has rewarded us.

  • When I am calm, he has guidance
  • When I walk away, he takes a pause
  • When I support him, he has something to stand on
  • When I stop nagging, he hears me
  • When I trust him, he rises to the occasion
  • When I accept him, he shares his world with me
  • When I let go of control, we’re in it together

It may not be exactly how I planned, imagined, or engineered it, but it’s better than the alternative.

This article inspired my post, which I’ve wanted to write for a while. I wish I’d read the article before the (invasion of the) body snatchers came to take my child. It’s insightful, straightforward, and all-too-accurate. I imagine it wouldn’t have had the same impact then as it does now, but I’m ever so glad that I read it.

Take heed: your child will change. It’s going to be quick, furious, and undeniable, and it’s going to be harder than you ever imagined.

Letting go is what kids are designed to do. If we do it right, we’re supposed to let go, too.

Why Are Our Girls Developing so Early?

The medical community considers any onset of sexual development before age eight to be precocious puberty, and it is increasingly common.

A hundred years ago, the average age for a girl to begin menstruating was 16 or 17 years old. Today, that age has fallen to less than 13 years old, with the most dramatic decline occurring in the past three decades.
The first menstrual period, or menarche, is the most significant event in female puberty, but it is actually one of the last in a series of hormone-induced changes that span four to five years, beginning with breast development, body and pubic hair, bone growth spurt, and a general shift in body composition and shape. Once a girl starts her period, she is nearing the end of physical maturation.
 
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The medical community considers any onset of sexual development before age eight to be precocious puberty, and it is increasingly common.

Is it harmful?

The physical and psychological ramifications of precocious puberty are profound. Early and prolonged exposure to the ovary-produced hormone estrogen can increase the chances of certain cancers, asthmas, and metabolic syndromes, and is proven to cause the growth plates in the bones to seal prematurely, resulting in a smaller-than-expected skeletal stature. Girls in early puberty will experience a growth spurt and may be taller than their peers for a while, but once the bones have fused, they are done growing.
In addition to the biological complications, girls who mature early face a greater risk of depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and other social challenges that accompany a sexually-developed body. Our culture makes assumptions based on appearances, regardless of emotional preparedness. Think back on your own adolescence and imagine navigating that tumultuous time three years earlier.

Why is this happening?

One likely culprit is the obesity epidemic. To ensure that a body can withstand the rigors of fertility, the brain requires a certain percentage of adipose tissue (body fat) before the pituitary gland will instruct the ovaries to begin releasing hormones. The sooner this is reached, the sooner the endocrine system activates the sex organs.
Compounding the process is the fact that fat cells themselves produce estrogen. With childhood obesity rates having quadrupled over the past decade, this undoubtedly accounts for a high percentage of precocious puberty.
The obesity theory does not explain everything, though, because not all obese girls develop early and not all girls who develop early are overweight by any measure. There are other factors at play. Researchers believe variables, like stressors in the home, violence, unstable parental relationships, the mother having gestational diabetes, and even intense emotional reactions can reduce the age of menarche. The theory being that hastening reproduction is an evolutionary response to one’s surroundings, and it safeguards genetic material.
Scientists agree the other major contributor linked to this phenomenon is exposure to chemicals containing endocrine-disrupting compounds (EDCs). An endocrine disrupter, when introduced by ingestion or transdermally, will mimic, alter, or weaken the body’s natural hormones (estrogen in particular), thus interfering with the intricate glandular signals.
EDCs can be naturally occurring or manufactured and are widely found in household and personal care products. The list of items manufactured out of materials comprised of these compounds includes vinyl coverings (especially mattress and pillow protectors), sunscreen, dryer sheets, air fresheners, cleaning solutions, shampoo, and many fragranced products.
Bisphenol A (BPA), the celebrity villain of the plastic world, is currently being phased out due to concerns about its harmful effects.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that lavender and tea tree oils, used as fragrances and therapeutic agents in bath and beauty products as well as in essential oils treatments, were found to stimulate estrogen receptors and disrupt the hormone signaling pathways.

What can we do?

Being physically active and maintaining a normal body weight, as well as being diligent about avoiding environmental contributors will reduce the risk of early puberty. Read labels, use plant-sourced and plant-based products whenever possible, and break the plastic habit. Understand also that despite our best efforts – and for reasons we have yet to understand – nature’s course is set, and a girl’s body will begin changing.
If you suspect your daughter is exhibiting signs of precocious puberty, the most common of which is unilateral or bilateral changes in the breasts before age eight, seek the opinion of a medical professional right away. There are safe and effective treatments, in the form of periodic injections or daily pills, that interrupt a girl’s development cycle, thus buying her time to fulfill her growth potential. The sooner she is evaluated, the better her chances of slow things down.
Eventually, all our girls will mature into women, leaving childhood behind, body and soul. The transition is never easy, but the longer they can stay young, the better equipped they will be for the journey.
It’s hard enough letting them go.