Coping With Early Puberty In Girls
By Laura Choate
Melissa, the mother of an eight and half year-old third grader, is concerned. During the past several months, her daughter, Sophie, has grown noticeably taller and can no longer fit into her school uniform from last semester. Her breasts have grown to the point that she needs a bra. The boys in Sophie’s class have started to make jokes and some have even snapped her bra straps from behind her back. Sophie cries after school every day, wondering why her body is changing this way. “Why can’t I just be normal?” she sobs. Melissa is also wondering how her young daughter suddenly morphed into a teenage look-alike right before her eyes.
What is the “new normal” for girls’ puberty?
Parents like Melissa are concerned about what is considered “normal” for their daughter’s development, and as with other areas of physical development, there is a wide age range: Normal pubertal onset occurs between the age of 8-13 for girls (average age = 10) and 9-14 for boys (average age = 11). Puberty for girls refers to the onset of breast growth with a possible experiencing of a rapid growth spurt, pubic hair, underarm hair, and acne. Actual menstruation does not start until around two years after these initial signs have developed.
On the one hand, you might be surprised to read that the young age of eight is considered to be within the range of what is normal for puberty, yet on the other hand, you might have noticed that girls do seem to be maturing at earlier ages. Research confirms that pubertal onset has fallen during the past 20 years. No one is exactly sure why the age of puberty is dropping, but it is likely a combination of factors, some of which include genetics, environmental toxins, diet, high levels of body fat, stress, and high levels of negative family conflict.
What are the risks associated with early puberty in girls?
Girls who mature early are at risk for negative social and psychological problems, which can include:
Self-esteem and body image problems. Girls who mature early are more likely than other girls to be uncomfortable with their bodies and weight, placing them at risk for low self-esteem, negative body image, and eating disorders.
Psychological problems. Girls who mature early are more likely to experience depression, social anxiety, and substance disorders in their teen years.
Behavior problems. Girls are more likely to experience increased teasing and bullying by peers, sexual harassment, early and unwanted sexual activity, physical and verbal abuse in their dating relationships, social exclusion, disruptive or aggressive behaviors, and low support from friends and family.
These problems are more likely to happen to early maturing girls because the signs are very noticeable to others, causing them to feel as if all eyes are on their developing bodies. During middle childhood and especially in early adolescence, girls are already highly concerned with comparing themselves to others to see how they measure up. Standing out or appearing “different” can cause great distress for girls who desperately want to fit in.
Girls who mature early also have problems when they are prematurely forced into the adolescent subculture. A girl’s mature appearance will likely attract the attention of older friends and romantic partners, and this may be enticing as she is searching for a place where she can fit in and be a part of a peer group. Being around an older crowd, however, will often expose her to high-risk activities, and she might be encouraged to smoke, drink, try substances, date older boys, and be pressured to engage in sexual activity well before she is emotionally prepared to cope with these types of pressures.
What can parents do to help?
Girls who show significant signs of puberty before age eight (and boys before age nine) are considered to be undergoing precocious puberty. In these cases, parents should seek medical attention for their children, who are often then diagnosed and treated by a pediatric endocrinologist. However, many girls like Sophie develop signs of puberty at the early age of eight or nine, which is still considered to be within the range of what would be classified as “normal”. These girls do not generally need medical treatment, but they do need a strong support system to help them deal with the physical changes to their bodies.
Some practical strategies for lending support.
Focus on Reality versus Perception. Make an intentional effort to respond to your daughter not according to the age she looks but according to the age she actually is. On the outside she may look like a teenager, but emotionally she is still a child who needs your nurturance and protection.
Normalize. Let her know the changes she is going through are normal but just happening a little early. “I know you might be the only one in your class who is tall and who is wearing a bra. It’s okay; you’ve just started to change a few years earlier than the other kids.” Age-appropriate books about the changes of puberty might also help to normalize the process for her.
Check yourself. How you cope with her pubertal transition can determine how well your daughter will also cope with these changes. If you are embarrassed of your daughter’s developing body, then she will pick up on this message and will learn to be ashamed of her body as well. Try to cope with any negative or anxious feelings by discussing them with a counselor or a trusted friend. Don’t bottle them up so that they seep into your relationship with your daughter.
Encourage positive self-image. Do what you can to help her maintain a positive self-image. Maintain a loving home where she can relax and be herself. Be positive about the changes in her body, but try to keep your comments centered on non-appearance qualities like her character and her performance at school and activities.
Monitor friends. Pay attention to your child’s group of friends and note if she is gravitating towards an older peer group. Consider setting an age limit on friends so that she will not be exposed to high-risk activities before she is ready to deal with these pressures.
Get help if needed. Talk to your pediatrician about your concerns if you feel that your child needs additional support. A school or mental health counselor can also assist in helping your daughter to cope with the changes of puberty.
An increasing number of girls will develop signs of early puberty in the near future. It is our job as parents to reassure our daughters that puberty is a normal and natural process and to be a strong source of support for listening and validating her concerns. Our ability to normalize, empathize, and protect will go a long way towards helping her accept and even embrace changes in her body and in her newly-forming identity.