When we were growing up, we were told that it was normal to begin puberty when we were around 11 or 12 years old. However, a strange phenomenon seems to be affecting girls throughout the country. Instead of beginning puberty at 11 years old, girls as young as six or seven are beginning to show the physical signs of becoming teenagers. They are developing pubic and underarm hair, exhibiting mood swings and even starting their periods long before they reach middle school.
This is a condition known as precocious puberty, and many parents and teachers don’t know what to make of it. Some see it as girls simply going through a natural process early, while others see it as a medical problem that requires treatment lest our daughters “skip” their childhood.
The strange phenomenon of precocious puberty may not be as strange or phenomenal as people are making it out to be. The statistics that would have us believe that we begin puberty around 11 years old are from the 1960s. That’s five decades ago. Granted, human beings haven’t changed all that much in 50 years, but there have been changes, and one of them may be that children are beginning puberty at younger ages.
While experts aren’t sure why so many girls are entering puberty so early, there are some theories. One of the more convincing theories is that girls who weigh more than their peers tend to begin puberty earlier. This is due to a hormone called leptin. As more energy is stored within a girl’s fat, her body’s leptin levels begin to rise. Once it gets high enough, the brain sends a signal to the rest of the body saying that puberty can safely begin. Girls these days have higher body mass indexes than their mothers or grandmothers did at their age, so they begin puberty earlier.
Unfortunately, just because a girl matures physically at a young age, does not mean that she will mature mentally. Many of the girls affected by precocious puberty are still immature emotionally. They can easily be mistaken as much older than they actually are, which can lead to problems. They may be expected to take on responsibilities they aren’t ready for and could be treated as teenagers well before they reach high school. While this is happening, they may also feel disconnected from peers, many of whom will not be experiencing puberty for another five years. Many girls who start puberty at a young age find that they can’t relate to their friends. This can be tough for anybody, even someone who may be emotionally healthy and well adjusted.
If you have a daughter or student who looks to be growing up faster than her friends, the best thing to do is simply assure them that it is normal. Most doctors will not attempt to put a hormonal stop to early puberty unless there is a good reason to do so. Everyone goes through puberty; it just so happens that some girls are going though it sooner rather than later. It can be scary, especially for a child with special needs, but it is also a normal part of growing up. No matter how “unusual” the circumstances may be, it is important that children be reminded of that fact.
Precocious puberty can be particularly stressful or difficult for girls with cognitive or developmental delays and challenges. Lacking the intellectual readiness to cope with the hormonal and physical changes that define puberty, these girls can become depressed and may present with a variety of behavioral issues that can confound, confuse and challenge their parents, teachers and caretakers. There are many interventions that can help; among these are medical, educational (Stanfield has many) and behavioral therapies. If you are the parent of such an individual, gather a team of experts in your corner along with other parents of girls similarly challenged. They may be your best allies for dealing with the difficult issues that precocious puberty bring.
Copyright 2013 James Stanfield Company. All Rights Reserved.
Source: Port, Dina R. “The Precocious Puberty Phenomenon.” Parenting Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 May 2013.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.