Posted: Jan 21, 2014 9:00 AM
 
Girls are going through puberty a full two years earlier than their moms did. What’s going on with early puberty? Is this something we need to worry about? A doctor’s opinion on the reasons behind early puberty and what we should — and can — be doing about early puberty in children.

As the mother of two girls, the topic of early onset puberty worries me and makes me wildly curious. Why are girls going through puberty (in some cases) a full two years earlier than we did? While some doctors are saying that the difference is minimal, others aren't so sure.

What the research says

As early as the late 1980s, Marcia Herman-Giddens, then a physician's associate in the pediatric department of the Duke University Medical Center, led a study with the American Academy of Pediatrics that sampled 17,000 girls and found that the average age of early development was 10. Even this was a full two — and sometimes three — years earlier than these girls' mothers.

And these mothers were worried. They flocked to traditional doctors who told them that the research wasn't accurate. But their experiences told them otherwise. In this article in The New York Times, journalist Elizabeth Weil accounted for her and her daughter's experience and that of so many others. After many frustrating non-answers falling in line with the doctor-parent stalemate — "There's nothing going on," "Yes, there is" — she finally visited Jared Allomong, an applied kinesiologist (applied kinesiology is a "healing art").

Weil learned that obesity, processed foods, chemicals in food and water and plastics (especially those containing BPA) might be the cause of some girls' early onset puberty.

And there she was told something out of the box: While her daughter's body might not be producing the estrogen associated with puberty, which supported the doctors' commonly touted "nothing to see here" stance, our environment might be the culprit for the "developing" symptoms that so many (thousands of!) mothers were observing. At this appointment, Weil learned that obesity, processed foods, chemicals in food and water and plastics (especially those containing BPA) might be the cause of some girls' early onset puberty.

A doctor's eye

Today, many doctors are seeing exactly what Giddens saw: While some girls' bodies might not be going through puberty, they are developing early onset puberty "symptoms" forcing their mothers' hands with topics such as razors and bras. Dr. Nancy Simpkins, a board certified internist, reports the exact same findings: the early onset puberty blame lies with obesity, plastics made with BPA and food additives with estrogen-like substances.

Despite being turned away at the (doctor's) door, these findings not only validate what mothers have been observing, but they also push tween parenting in a new — and perhaps uncomfortable — direction. Mental health and relationship expert Rhonda Richards-Smith explains that this is a topic that we have to question, discuss and address. Why? Because our young girls are developing whether or not we're not ready to talk about it.

Having to face mature issues as a young girl can be scary and hard to understand, as her brain attempts to emotionally process and catch up to where her body is heading.

Smith says, "Early puberty can take an emotional toll if young girls don't have a safe space to express how they're feeling. Comments, looks and differing treatment from other kids and adults alike can make the situation more isolating and confusing. Having to face mature issues as a young girl can be scary and hard to understand, as her brain attempts to emotionally process and catch up to where her body is heading."

What's a mom to do?

young tween girl exercising or playing

When Weil wrote her The New York Times article, her inbox filled with "Me, toos." Mothers, relieved that their girls weren't the only ones, shared their experiences and their attempts at solutions. Weil reported that, "Some [mothers] trained with [their daughters] for 5K runs (exercise is one of the few interventions known to help prevent early puberty); others trimmed milk and meat containing hormones from their daughters' diets; and some purged from their homes plastics, pesticides and soy."

These "precautions" proved to be helpful for some, but frustrating for others. One woman noted to Weil that even in the most diligent label-watching household, children are still exposed to these "ingredients" outside of the home.

So what's the only thing left to do? Parent.

It's important that parents consult with their daughter's pediatrician and reassure their children that puberty is a natural, normal part of growing up which is nothing to be ashamed of.

Smith explains, "While parents may have a strong desire to postpone some uncomfortable conversations, now would not be the time to do so. It's important that parents consult with their daughter's pediatrician and reassure their children that puberty is a natural, normal part of growing up which is nothing to be ashamed of."

As uncomfortable — and early — as it may seem, parents need to rev up their tween parenting conversation topics. Shannan Ball Younger writes the Tween Us blog on ChicagoNow, a site that explores the world of kids ages 8 to 12, the tween years, and the challenges that come with parenting them because, as she says, the space between playing with trucks and driving them can be difficult for both kids and parents. She has some opinions on this matter.

Younger advises:

  • Parents need to give "the birds and the bees" talk earlier than our parents did, and you should also be prepared to explain your child's body changes. This doesn't mean that you'll have to do so while they're watching Sesame Street, but it's coming, and sooner, not later. The more prepared children are, the less frightening the process is and the better kids will be able to handle early signs of puberty, in either themselves or in classmates.
  • Parents can let their kids know that their bodies will change at some point, and the point at which those changes start is different for every child. Some kids may wonder why those changes are not happening to them a la Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret, so early puberty can impact girls who experience those changes later than normal, too. Parents need to be aware of that as well. And if it happens to you a few years later, that's OK, too. It's hard for kids to not worry about it.
  • Parents should note that younger children are often far more receptive to talking about body issues and puberty. One day, when [Younger's own child] was around age 9 or 10, those talks suddenly became more awkward and more difficult and she says that, "while I was glad that I had opened a dialogue sooner, I wish I had taken greater advantage of it."
  • Girls need adult women to model loving their bodies and appreciating what those amazing bodies can do rather than criticizing it or wishing for something different because for our young girls it can be hard to appreciate a body that feels foreign.

More on raising girls

Let's make girls unstoppable
Science experiments for smart girls
Tips for empowering girls

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