Of all the cringe-y moments I experienced as a middle schooler, going shopping for my first bra stands apart. I was 12, bumbling around in my body after shooting up six inches that spring and swirling with self doubt. I remember my mom flipping through the department store’s selection of training bras and cotton camisoles, while I did my best to disappear into the floor.
My own kiddos are 7 and 2, which means I have time before taking another ride on the puberty merry-go-round, this time as a parent. On the bra-shopping front, the options have fortunately expanded since the mid-1990s! I checked in with two experts for their thoughts on how parents might help make the experience comfortable and empowering for their kids and themselves.
Check in With Your Own Hang Ups
“Puberty can bring up a lot of anxiety in parents,” said Zoë Bisbing, LCSW, the owner and director of Body-Positive Therapy NYC and co-founder of the Full Bloom Project. Before beginning up a discussion about finding a bra with your kid, check in with your own potential areas of discomfort so they don’t sneak up on you. “So much starts with parents paying attention to how they feel, so they can model that they are a safe grownup for their kids to talk to.”
For sensitive, body-related questions at home or in the fitting room, Bisbing suggests starting by asking permission. “You could say, ‘Is it okay if I ask you a couple of questions? I want to make sure we get you the right thing,’” she said. When asking consent of non-binary and transgender children, J. Cohen, LCSW, the Director of Clinical Services and Training at the UCSF Child and Adolescent Gender Center, said, “It is important to clarify how they want to refer to their own bodies” — for example, asking whether they prefer to use the word chest or breast.
Ask What Shopping Experience They’d Prefer
It’s important to explore how your kid wants this moment to happen, said Cohen. “Do they want to go shopping together, or would they rather you pick out some things for them to try at home? How much autonomy vs. assistance do they want?” If shopping online feels most comfortable, body-positive brands like Yellowberry, Justice, MeUndies, and TomboyX are great places to start.
Even with recent shifts in the media towards body inclusivity, tweens (and their parents) are inundated with harmful messages about what bodies should look like. Help your kids understand that everything about their changing bodies — from new curves to stretch marks — as well as their excitement, ambivalence or dread about those changes is completely normal. “For some kids, this moment can be a source of pride and celebration. For others, it’s emotional or distressing,” Cohen said. Whatever your child is feeling, meet them there and let them know their experiences and feelings are welcome.
Before choosing a style of bra, have a conversation that focuses on fit and comfort. “The most important questions are, can they move their bodies in a comfortable way and does the bra move with them?” Bisbing said. “They can even jump around to make sure everything feels good in motion.” An online guide to chest measuring (which they can do on their own, or ask for your assistance) can help identify the right fit. Cohen said that prioritizing comfort for trans and non-binary tweens might also include asking whether they might like to include padding in a bra search or, alternatively, if they prefer a sports bra or chest binder. (Be sure to familiarize yourself with safe binding practices and discuss them with your child.)
Set Boundaries When Necessary
There may be moments when your kid’s choices fall outside of a boundary you feel comfortable with as a parent. Bisbing stressed the importance of starting from a place of curiosity. Instead of yelling, “No, you may absolutely NOT get a leopard print bustier!” you might (after taking a breath) take a calm and curious approach: “What do you like about this one?” This will help defuse fitting room meltdowns and open up space for communication. If the time comes to set boundaries, do it in a way that respects your kid’s voice. “You might say, ‘At some point when you are older that could be an option, but right now these are the choices,’” Bisbing said.
Here’s the bottom line: As parents, we can’t protect our kids from all the embarrassments that come with adolescence. But what we can do is love our kids, listen to them, and give them space to be their awkward, uncertain, sometimes cranky, and always devastatingly beautiful selves.
Leah Koenig is a writer and the author of six cookbooks, including The Jewish Cookbook and Modern Jewish Cooking. She also writes The Jewish Table, a weekly newsletter exploring recipes and stories from the world of Jewish food. Leah lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and two children.
Thoughts? Any other tips from teens or parents who have been there?