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A classic mother-daughter moment came early for Denise de Reyna. When her daughter, Emily, was 4 1/2 years old, Denise noticed one of Emily’s breasts had begun to develop. This turned out to be the first sign of precocious puberty.

For some kids, puberty starts early -- often before age 8 in girls and before age 9 in boys. It can be confusing for children to see their bodies changing before their minds know what’s going on. Here are some ways to help children who experience early puberty feel comfortable with themselves and their bodies.

Is Precocious Puberty on the Rise?

Many people believe that in general, kids start puberty earlier now. A study of more than 17,000 girls in the 1990s showed that by the time they turned 8, 48 percent of African-American girls and 14 percent of white girls had at least the first sign of breasts or pubic hair.

The problem in figuring out whether kids are hitting puberty earlier is that previous studies looked mainly at white girls, and often only in small numbers. However, for white girls in recent studies, it appears that puberty -- which begins with breast development in girls -- started six months to a year earlier than for those studied in the 1960s. By contrast, the average age of girls having their first period, between 12 and 13, seems to be about the same.

As a parent, it’s natural to wonder what might lie at the root your child’s early puberty. Often, there is no anatomical cause for precocious puberty. The condition is rarely related to a tumor or other disorder.

Theories about other causes include pesticides and plastics, obesity, and family relationships. While researchers test these theories, how can parents best care for a child undergoing precocious puberty?

Early Puberty and Self-Image

Your child gets feedback about herself from many sources: friends, teachers, the media, and you. All of this information feeds into your child’s self-image and how she thinks society expects her to behave in her developing body.

“It’s very important for parents to reinforce their child’s positive self-image,” says Charles Wibbelsman, MD, chief of adolescent medicine at Kaiser Permanente. “Parents often have no idea how much pressure their child is under. They need to be positive, not critical of the child’s development.”

Though you can’t control all of the outside input, you can create a loving home where your child with early puberty can be herself. Studies show that children who have warm relationships with their parents have fewer anxieties and depression. Being a nurturing and supportive parent now sets the stage for your child to accept your involvement throughout her teen years.

Puberty: What's Normal?

When should puberty start? See the ages and changes to expect.
View slideshow