Many scientists, clinicians, and social observers have seen a rise in children—both girls and boys– going through puberty at an early age. It used to be that puberty happened around 12-15. Better health and food has accounted for some of these changes. Other causes are less easy to figure out. For a parent and a child, however, the onset of early puberty presents challenges and risks. This is especially true for some children with certain kinds of conditions. Here are some notes and suggestions.
Let’s start off with girls first. I will cover boys in a later post. Delia Lloyd noted in her blog that a friend had a five year old girl who started puberty symptoms. The doctor told the parent to keep an eye on her.
Lloyd noted that early puberty posed certain health risks for girls: “While the causes of this trend are unknown, one chief culprit is thought to be obesity. Body fat produces estrogen, which in turn triggers breast development and menstruation. Another possibility are endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment — such as bisphenol-A (BPA) — which is found in many hard plastic products, including water bottles and baby bottles.
There are plenty of reasons to worry about the adverse consequences of early-onset puberty for the girls themselves. For starters, the risk of breast cancer may be increased by longer exposure to estrogen. Early development has also been shown to cause low self-esteem and doubts about body image in girls, as well as greater rates of eating disorders, depression and attempted suicide. And in a society where there’s already quite a bit of anxiety about the over-sexualization of girls, early onset puberty can only make matters worse, as girls are prematurely forced to confront their sexuality.
She continues about girls—and their mothers:
I also wonder what will become of those girls who mature at a later age. If we begin to normalize puberty as something that happens in elementary school, what sorts of self-esteem and body image issues will crop up for that dwindling majority of girls who don’t hit puberty until 12 or 13?
Earlier puberty in girls will also necessitate (yet another) rethink of sex ed in schools — both how early to cover it and what needs to be said. Parents will also need to recalibrate their children’s reading lists to introduce them to this topic in an age-appropriate way. It’s hard to imagine Judy Blume’s classic, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” working for a 7-year-old.
Finally, I also suspect that the results of this study will end up getting dragged into the ongoing Mommy Wars over breastfeeding. To the extent that the plastic chemical in baby bottles is in any way a contributor to the early puberty trend, it will provide further ammunition to those who’ve always maintained that “breast is best.” And women who didn’t breastfeed at all or fear that they didn’t do it long enough will now over-analyze whether they should have done things differently.
I would add some comments of my own from my clinical experience. One girl I treated, who was not very athletic, said that she wanted to play more T-Ball. This was a child who would be sent to right field and usually faced outwards, not towards, home plate. She picked flowers, as did Ferdinand the Bull. More T-Ball would have been frustrating, to say the least. When pressed, she finally said that she wanted to do T-Ball because she wanted the exercise—she felt herself fat. She was seven at the time and certainly not fat. Girls can get preoccupied about their body image at very early ages. Early onset puberty makes the situation worse.
Another girl I saw was 10 and had begun to develop. Her mother came from a strict religious background. So the girl responded by ignoring her mother who was trying to cover her up. The girl also rebelled by secretly trying on revealing clothes and makeup at school. Even more, the mother’s boyfriend, who was even more strict, responded by being indirectly sexual with her. He punished her by having her do pushups in front of him while he pressed her back. I cautioned them to handle this differently after reporting the matter to Child Protective Services.
For a girl who has other issues, such as Asperger’s, early onset puberty can pose an even greater challenge. Others may be aware of her budding sexuality and she may not see it. She may experience advances she may not recognize and so be unable to handle. She may put herself in unsafe situations. Like any other girl with early onset puberty, she may be going on pre-teen dates where she finds herself in difficult situations. Any girl should be taught to handle herself carefully in all situations.
What any girl with early onset puberty should receive is appropriate medical attention to address any physical concerns. She should receive appropriate parental and professional counseling to help her through a difficult time. This is especially true for a girl with Asperger’s and perhaps other conditions like ADHD/ADD, where she is unlikely to notice what she’s experiencing and going on around her. Her school should be alerted to her changes and her place in it should be made safe. So, walk carefully with your daughter as she matures.