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Girls from low-income families often feel unprepared for puberty

Jan 6, 2017

I am a mother of two young girls. And I am fully aware that one day I will have to have "the talk" with each of them about puberty and the things that come with it. While I can't exactly say I'm excited about it, I want to make sure they are equipped to cope with the transition.

Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Many girls – particularly those from low-income families – feel unprepared for puberty, according to a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Researchers from Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed puberty experiences of low-income African-American, Caucasian, and Hispanic girls, living mainly in urban areas of the Northeastern U.S.

They found that most low-income girls lack information to cope with the start of puberty and menstruation. Marni Sommer is associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health. She said in a press release:

Puberty is the cornerstone of reproductive development. Therefore, the transition through puberty is a critical period of development that provides an important opportunity to build a healthy foundation for sexual and reproductive health. Given the importance of this transition, the research is striking in its lack of quantity and quality to date.

And this lack of preparation results in negative feelings and experiences, according to the study. While many girls have conversations about puberty with someone like a parent, sibling, or teacher, they often find what they are told to be inaccurate or inadequate – and they often receive the information too late. Research shows girls have started puberty earlier over the past three decades, with nearly half of African-American girls showing signs of physical development as young as age eight. Sommer told Parents.com:

Many girls in the various studies that were reviewed reported a desire for a real emotional connection and conversation with their mothers (or parents) about the pubertal changes happening in their bodies, and the possible implications of such changes for their social interactions with peers and others. Although some girls reported conversations with their mothers, with information about their periods having been conveyed, girls often felt it was insufficient to meet their needs and answer all of their questions, and to help them feel confident about the body changes occurring.

Previous studies have shown that girls from higher-income families are both better prepared for puberty and have more positive feelings toward it.

The findings of the study also reveal many mothers feel just as unprepared to talk about puberty and are not sure when to initiate these conversations. According to Parents.com:

Many mothers (or caregivers) themselves felt uncomfortable and inadequate in their ability to deliver the guidance they felt their daughters needed about puberty and its many emotional and physical changes. This would suggest that parents need to first feel more prepared to have these types of conversations with their daughters, and to feel bolstered in their efforts by the reality that their daughters do in fact want their guidance and support.

Conversations about puberty are often limited to avoiding teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, especially among African-American and Hispanic populations. According to the recent study:

Caucasian girls were more likely to experience menarche as a celebration, whereas African-American and Hispanic girls commonly experienced puberty as tied to fears about unwanted pregnancy and the need to protect oneself from males. Caucasian girls tended to feel more supported during puberty and were better able to report accurate puberty knowledge.

The findings of the study show a need for new, more robust interventions to support and provide information about puberty for low-income girls, according to researchers. However, while this research focused on lower-income families, I think it’s probably safe to say we could better guide all of our children through this natural transition.