Q: My 12-year-old daughter has larger breasts than most of the girls in her class. The kids tend to be a little jealous and can hurt her feelings and try to put her down.
I need some ideas to help her through this transition period.
J. B., Cleveland, Ohio
A: The most important ways to help your daughter are to maintain open communication, be a good listener and do everything you can to bolster her self-esteem.
"Many girls are developing at young ages, and it is important to help your daughter to understand that she is normal and this is a natural part of growing up," says Gloria Thomas, a reader from Barrington, Ill.
And this from a reader in Providence, R.I. "Talk to her about other people's reactions to her breasts, including the reactions of older boys," Arlene Shropshire says.
Those reactions may not necessarily be what you assume they are.
"There may be other views than jealousy," says Betty Rothbart, who teaches adolescent development and sex education at Bank Street College of Education in New York.
"At 12, girls are still in the maturation stage of having one foot in childhood and the other dipped in the waters of the teen-ager, and some girls may look on your daughter's bigger breasts with fear.
"Her breasts are visible evidence that new roles they are not ready for are coming or have arrived," Ms. Rothbart says.
Perhaps the other girls are worried that they aren't normal because their breasts are developing too slowly, says Peggy Clarke, president of the American Social Health Association, a nonprofit group based in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
In our society, breasts are a powerful symbol of femininity, fertility and sexuality, and because of mass media and advertising, children are becoming aware of these messages at an increasingly early age.
It's especially important for a girl's mother to offset these messages with a healthier perspective.
"The central message should be that the human body is a terrific thing -- the whole thing," Ms. Clarke says.
"Stress that the important thing is to be healthy, that her body is normal, not better or worse than anybody else's."
Adolescents are often so preoccupied with themselves and how others' see them that they neglect to notice the vast range that exists in normal bodies, Ms. Rothbart says.
"Her mother can help her get some distance and perspective by helping her to become an observer," Ms. Rothbart says.
"Ask her to begin noticing other kids in her class and to look at adults and see the tremendous variety that there is. Help her to see that everybody's body is different."
This is the first step toward helping her accept herself. After the girl can begin to look at her peers more objectively, Ms. Rothbart suggests pointing out that classmates' unkind comments are not a reflection on her, but on themselves and their own inner conflicts.
The next step is to help your daughter develop and rehearse some lines to respond to the teasing.
"It may be as simple as pointing out that people grow at different rates and everybody's body is different," Ms Rothbart says.
Several readers who called Child Life suggest encouraging the girl to participate in a sport.
"Try to get her interested in sports or things she likes to do to make her feel good about herself and her own accomplishments in life," says Elizabeth Kroian of Cranston, R.I.
Modeling classes helped one reader who says she had the same problem in sixth grade.
"My mother enrolled me in modeling classes, and this not only taught me to stand well, but to accept and be satisfied with the shape I had," says Susan Fadl of Warwick, R.I.
Go shopping with your daughter, to get properly fitting underwear and to try on various clothing styles.
"But allow her to make her own decisions about dress," says T. M. of Bristol, R.I. "Large baggy T-shirts and layers upon layers may be the norm."
Finally, the mother and daughter should together elicit the help of her teachers at school.
Lynda Madaras, author of the "What's Happening to My Body?" book for girls (New Market Press, $9.95), says she gets thousands of letters from girls who hate changing clothes for gym class because they feel they are either too developed or not developed enough.
"You have to insist that the gym teacher have a talk with the girls about not teasing in the changing room," Ms. Madaras says.
Better yet, one reader says, a teacher should always be present during this time.
"When I was in middle school, our teachers would come and do paperwork or just walk up and down the aisles while we were changing," says Carol Raymond of Addison, Ill.
"It helped a lot with some kids."
While a reporter at the Miami Herald, Beverly Mills developed this column after the birth of her son, now 6. Ms. Mills and her husband currently live in Raleigh, N.C., and also have a 4-year-old daughter.
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