A recent article in the New York Times Magazine featured the story of a young girl who had begun to show signs of puberty at age six. She is far from alone.
In August 2010, a study published in Pediatricshowed that by age seven, 10 percent of white girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls, 23 percent of Black girls, and two percent of Asian girls had started developing breasts. On the other hand, the average age of the first period has stayed fairly consistent over the years, decreasing only slightly from 12.8 to 12.5 years old. Still, starting puberty earlier leaves some girls open to certain physical and psychological risks.
Why is this happening?
Some cases of early puberty are normal, while some are diagnosable disorders such as central precocious puberty. In either case, many theories have emerged to explain the phenomenon.
Weight. There seems to be a connection between body-mass index and the timing of puberty. That is, girls who weigh more tend to start puberty earlier. But it’s more about fat tissue than the number of pounds on a scale. Girls with more fat have higher levels of leptin, a hormone that can lead to early puberty.
Environment. Some studies have shown that environmental chemicals can also cause bodies to mature early. These chemicals – known as “estrogen mimics” – include BPA, which is found in hard plastic and many other everyday products. More research is still being conducted to examine the effects of certain hormones and toxins.
Family stress. Traumatic experiences can also affect puberty age. Evidence suggests that girls who experience divorce at an early age, whose mothers have depression, or whose fathers are violent are more likely to enter puberty at a young age than other girls. One explanation is that high stress levels send signals to a young body that it should “grow up” and mature more quickly.
What can families do?
Some families have tried medication for their young girls, but many have possible side effects including increasing the risk of osteoporosis. Exercise has also been shown to help prevent early puberty for some girls. Beyond physical concerns, however, early puberty can often result in emotional challenges. Girls that develop early are more likely to have low self-esteem and higher rates of depression and eating disorders well into adulthood. Many become sexually active earlier as well, putting them at risk for sexually-transmitted diseases.
For these reasons, families are encouraged to focus not only on the physical changes experienced by these young girls, but on their psychological and emotional health as well. Sometimes that means learning to accept those changes no matter how ill-prepared a parent might be to deal with them. While in the search for a way to stop or slow down puberty, it may be equally as important not to pathologize the condition and make the young girl feel abnormal or unhealthy.
Most adolescents just want to fit in. Even if they know they’re different, with the right support, they can learn not to see their difference as a shortcoming.