Precocious Puberty Might be the New Normal
April 6, 2012
The thought of adolescence can bring some frightening images to a parent’s mind: head-butting over the car keys, general contrariness, and the horrified way in which your kid can groan “mo-om!” However, it is becoming increasingly common for girls to begin sprouting breasts and pubic hair before the age of 10, according to the New York Times. This early onset of puberty may leave young girls emotionally and mentally unprepared for the challenges that come with a more mature body.
Puberty in girls follows an ordered pattern of three events: the growth of breasts, the growth of pubic hair, and a first period. Most researchers now agree that breast budding is starting earlier. A 2010 study reported that some girls were developing breasts by age 7. And while eight used to be the age cutoff for normal pubic-hair growth in girls, it is now seven.
Precocious puberty comes with several risks, including advanced bone age—which is calculated by determining how much cartilage has turned to bone. Girls mostly stop growing after their final growth spurt, which occurs during puberty. If a growth spurt starts too early, it ends earlier as well. As a result, a child who had her period early will spend fewer years growing overall and wind up shorter than a genetically identical girl who gets her period at a later age.
Early periods are also associated with breast cancer, though the reason for this remains uncertain. Girls who reach puberty before their peers also tend to experience lower self-esteem, more depression, and more eating disorders. While late bloomers also experience depression during puberty, as compared to typically-developing girls, their depression typically ends once adolescence is over. Early bloomers suffer higher levels of depression and anxiety throughout adulthood. They also start drinking earlier, lose their virginity sooner, and have more sexual partners and sexually transmitted diseases.
“It may be that early maturers do not have as much time as other girls to accomplish the developmental tasks of childhood. They face new challenges while everybody else is still dealing with the usual development of childhood. This might be causing them to make less successful transitions into adolescence and beyond,” explains Julia Graber, associate chairwoman of psychology at the University of Florida.
Doctors have pointed their fingers at several contributing factors for the rising trend of precocious puberty. Girls who are overweight enter puberty earlier than thinner girls and researchers believe that fat tissue can cause a body to mature. Environmental chemicals can also be to blame, particularly those that mimic estrogen like BPA, a compound found in hard plastics and many other common products. Family stress can significantly speed up puberty, as well.
Families of early bloomers are encouraged keep their daughters active and at healthy body weights. But more importantly, they should treat them as the age they are, rather than the age they look in order to safeguard their vulnerable emotional development.
Do you worry that your daughter will develop early? If your daughter was an early bloomer, how did you handle the situation?