This Is So Awkward

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Puberty Is Starting Earlier Now — Here’s How To Talk To Your Daughter About Her Budding Breasts

If your kid has breasts years before you did, you might feel surprised or worried, but you are most definitely not alone.

by Vanessa Kroll Bennett and Cara Natterson, MD

It’s no surprise that boobs have become a lightning rod for parental concerns, especially with how early they appear these days. (Two generations ago, the average age for a genetic female to start budding breasts was 11; now it’s somewhere around 8 or 9, depending upon race or ethnicity.) Shock sets in when an 8-year-old walks into a room with breast buds poking out of her T-shirt — ultimately inevitable but expected two or three years down the road. This might feel surprising, but it’s not freak-out-worthy. In fact, it is completely possible — and downright important — for the adults in the room to manage their own reactions about changing bodies, which keeps kids more comfortable too.

Let’s start with our own reactions and expectations. Parents often assume that their kids will be the same age they were when they developed breasts, grew pubic hair, got their periods, broke out with acne, all of it. While genetics certainly play a role, clearly things have changed, particularly when it comes to the new determinants of pubertal timing. So if a kid has breasts years before you did, you might feel surprised or worried, but you are most definitely not alone.

Younger and younger breast development makes some adults acutely uncomfortable because of what breasts represent. Sexual maturity. Reproductive capability. Objectification. These are huge looming issues. The puffy, raised nipple of a breast bud might be small, but it carries tremendous baggage for some people. Adults who were early bloomers often hope their kids will develop breasts later than they did; adults who were late bloomers can feel the opposite. Some adults describe embarrassment that their child is well on the way to physical maturation, as if the only explanation is that they did something wrong, like feed them unhealthy foods or lather them with chemical-laden products. Others worry that with growing breasts, their kid will be on the receiving end of unwanted looks or comments. And then there are the adults downright confused by the emerging breast buds on their sons.

All the while, remember that kids are kids and it works best to treat them according to their chronological age, not the age they appear to be.

All of these reactions are legitimate and valid internal monologues in response to kids’ puberty, with an emphasis on internal here, because self-reflection can backfire when it gets blurted out uncensored in conversations with kids.

Let’s say the internal monologue starts something like this: Ugh, I’m so depressed that my daughter has started growing breast buds. The first thing to do is clock that internal reaction. What am I feeling? It could be sadness that she is growing up or worry that her life experience as a woman will be harder than her experience as a girl. Maybe your own transition into adolescence was really challenging and you don’t want her to have the same negative experiences you had.

More: Boys Get Confused About Their Bodies, Too — Here’s How To Talk To Your Tween About His Penis

The next step is to find support from other adults. This provides an alternative to dumping on our kids. Tap into a network of other adults or even just one with whom you can share some of your hardest, darkest thoughts — a spouse, a trusted friend, a therapist.

All the while, remember that kids are kids and it works best to treat them according to their chronological age, not the age they appear to be. It is perfectly normal to feel a sense of loss as they develop physically and feel nostalgia for when they were little. But that said, breast buds do not mean childhood is over. In fact, this is one of the first opportunities to practice helping a kid feel comfortable about their slowly evolving body, which is no small task.

What are the tactics? How can we talk to different types of kids without layering on any shame or any of our own baggage? Here is some specific advice:

For the kid who “needs” a bra but doesn’t want one

A classic puberty dilemma: a kid’s body has changed, but they either don’t notice or don’t want to notice. The same conundrum exists around when a kid should start wearing deodorant, shaving, using acne medicine — there’s a long list they aren’t asking for or about, and in some cases they’re resisting altogether. We can’t force our kids to do anything they don’t want to do, nor does that approach help teach underlying lessons about the importance. We can, though, make available the items or skills needed. Bras are never an absolute necessity — there are cultures across the globe that don’t embrace them and plenty of people locally who make the same choice. But some kids will sit out activities if they’re uncomfortable without a bra, or they might begin to wear loose-fitting clothing to hide their emerging curves.

Do your best to ask how they feel — physically and emotionally — in their changing body. Or try this: Here are a couple of comfortable bras I got for you if you’re into wearing one. Let me know if any of them feel good on your body.

For the kid who wants a bra but doesn’t “need” one

Need is a very subjective term here. When there’s no physical necessity, still consider the social or emotional circumstances, like a sense of belonging with their peers. The good news is that there is a continuum of bras beginning with an unstructured top which provides no function, really, beyond wearing an undergarment, basically a cut-off camisole. Many younger, flatter-chested kids love these. They also work wonders for late bloomers, surrounded by friends who all wear bras out of necessity — older kids who often just want to fit in. Stock up on a couple of inexpensive bras or camis if it will help ease social difficulties.

For the kid whose clothing is not always breast bud-friendly

Lots of clothing made for kids turns out to show everything underneath, from moisture-wicking shirts that seem to accentuate breast buds (kids call them “nipply”) to sheer white uniform shirts and jerseys. Without shaming kids about their growing bodies, we have an obligation to help them keep their bodies private if kids don’t always notice what’s visible to other people. This flips from being an issue about appearance to one about safety or self-esteem, sometimes requiring more directness: If you want (or need) to wear that top, you’ll need to wear a layer underneath — I got this bra for you.

For the kid who has no intention of wearing a bra

Opting to go braless is super common among Gen Z, so get used to it. The cultural shift away from wearing bras, whether as a fashion or a political statement, can be a big shock for people who grew up on Victoria’s Secret catalogs. Every generation makes different choices about how they present themselves, a tale as old as time. The bottom line is that if they’re not hurting themselves or anyone else, we need to let it go, even if bralessness makes us uncomfortable.

Hear someone “just out the other side:” J.S., she/her, age 20

On first bras:

The summer I was 9 years old, when I was at sleep-away camp, my mom bought me a training bra on visiting day. I was irate. There was no freaking way that I was going to add another layer of fabric under my already heavy and hot camp-issued top. And besides, I barely had boobs to begin with! Though I don’t totally remember, I’m sure what happened next was me telling my mom I would wear it and then proceeding to stuff it under my bed for the rest of the summer. I’m sure the summer heat played a role in my original bra aversion, but I had also really wanted to be able to pick out my own bras and try everything on, especially the first time. When I came home, I told my mom I wanted to go bra shopping, and the two of us went to a local store and picked out a few bras together.

My advice: Don’t force your child to wear a bra if they don’t want to, and help them feel in control of a body that is changing out of their control!

On fears of breast cancer:

I remember getting a text from a friend once in middle school that read, “my right tit is killing me i think i have breast cancer.” Needless to say, I was shocked. How could my friend, my 13-year-old friend, possibly have suddenly developed breast cancer? The next day, I got a message that the pain was gone, so she was probably fine, and I breathed a sigh of relief, but only until the same thing happened again a month later. After a quick phone call with her doctor, my friend (and I) came to realize that she did not, in fact, have breast cancer. She just had her period, and she was experiencing swelling leading up to her cycle.

My advice: Explain about how periods may affect boobs and that this is normal!

Excerpted from THIS IS SO AWKWARD copyright © 2023 by Vanessa Kroll Bennett and Cara Natterson, MD. Used by permission of Rodale Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained is available now wherever books are sold and your local library.Rodale Books

Cara Natterson, MD, is a pediatrician and New York Times bestselling author; Vanessa Kroll Bennett is a puberty educator and writer. Together, they co-authored This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained (Rodale Books, October 2023), host The Puberty Podcast, and run Order of Magnitude, the leading brand dedicated to flipping puberty positive. Cara and Vanessa can be found on Instagram and TikTok @spillingthepubertea. Perhaps their biggest cred, however, is that between them, they parent six teens.

Chapter bibliography:

Carlson, L., Poccia, F.V., Sun, B.Z., Mosley, B., Kirste, I., Rice, A., Sridhar, R., Kangarloo, T., et al. (2019). Early Breast Development in Overweight Girls: Does Estrogen Made by Adipose Tissue Play a Role?. International Journal of Obesity,

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). Adult Obesity Facts.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). Childhood Obesity Facts.