Is this a Space Alien, Hook ’em Horns or a Normal Reproductive Organ?: Precocious Puberty and What We Can Do to Help Girls Cope
Researchers are finding girls in industrialized countries like the United States are beginning to develop earlier than ever before, and that along with earlier development for some girls come a host of other issues. If a growth spurt starts too early in life, it ends at an early age too, meaning a child will have fewer growing years total. A girl who has her first period at age 10 will stop growing younger and end up shorter than a genetically identical girl who gets her first period at age 13. Starting puberty earlier is also associated with an increased risk of breast cancer & depression later in life. There are emotional impacts as well. Girls who start puberty early are more likely to have lower self-esteem, more depression and more eating disorders than their peers. They, on average, start drinking and having sex sooner as well.
There are lots of reasons scientists speculate puberty is happening earlier. For one, girls who are under a great deal of stress because they come from homes that are not supportive are more likely to get their period earlier. Girls who are overweight are more likely to enter puberty early, and the average weight of pre-teens has gone up steadily over time. And then there are environmental factors. Studies have shown that the exposure to some environmental chemicals can cause bodies to mature early. Of particular concern are endocrine-disrupters, like “xeno-estrogens” or estrogen mimics like the compound BPA, which is found in everything from deodorant to dental sealants. In fact, ninety-three percent of Americans have traces of BPA in their bodies, and more than a million pounds of the substance are released into the environment each year.
But why the negative emotional consequences? It makes sense that girls from troubled homes might have other issues to deal with as they got older- but negative consequences are correlated with starting puberty early for all girls, regardless of family background. It’s likely that some of it comes from the fact that being different than your peers, and looking in a way that suggests you are more mature than you in fact are, can have a serious impact on your self-esteem and ability to navigate a world you only look like you’re ready for.
There is only so much we know for sure about why puberty’s happening early- once it’s begun happening, how can parents help their daughters cope? Puberty is hard enough at 12. Puberty at 7, when a girl might be the only one of her peers to be going through it, is much more difficult.
It’s important for parent’s to remember: early puberty is no reason to panic. It means nothing other than your daughter might need your support towards healthy development earlier than you anticipated. Helping your daughter be physically and mentally healthy is all any parent can do, and there are steps you can take:
Help your daughter realize puberty is nothing to be ashamed of
Teach her the facts so she understands how her body works
Encourage regular physical activity
Think about avoiding meat known to come from animals that have been fed growth hormones, as well as products containing BPA
Talk to your doctor about how to make sure your daughter is getting the necessary level of nutrition
One of the lessons we teach at ClubGEN is called “Healthy Bodies”, and it helps girls understand what happens when their bodies start developing. Even for girls who reach puberty in what is considered the “normal” range, periods and pubic hair can be terrifying- and sometimes the misconceptions girls have about their bodies make their lives much more difficult. Not understanding why periods happen, or when, or how to deal with them are all things girls are still struggling with. If you’re over a certain age, you might remember rumors that spread about how to use tampons, or why people bled and when- but these misconceptions still exist today. “Does my period have a deadline?”, “Do tampons hurt?” and “Is it normal to be scared about puberty?” are just examples of real questions girls bring to clubGEN. ClubGEN offers lessons about puberty that help girls sort out what is myth and what is fact, helps answer their questions via anonymous question box, and teaches girls that everyone’s body is different, and that’s okay.
Education & encouraging unashamed discussion about what puberty means are necessary for girls to understand and accept their bodies as beautiful & normal- and now, that discussion is becoming crucial earlier than ever.