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Blossoming Too Early?

American girls are reaching puberty younger than ever. Why?

Preparing Little Girls for Womanhood

While researchers speculate on reasons for the drop, parents must contend with broaching the subject of sexual development with children while they are still in grade school. According to Helen Egger, M.D., a child psychiatrist in Duke University's department of psychiatry, once you've noticed signs, it's important to let your child take the lead. Egger's own daughter started showing signs of puberty at 8, so she gave her daughter some books about puberty geared to pre-teens as a catalyst for discussion. Then she waited for her daughter to approach her with questions. "Our daughter wanted to talk about some of the topics that the books brought up, such as menstruation and breast development," Egger says. "She recognized on her own that her body was changing before her friends', and that naturally led to discussions about how she felt about that."

When it comes to talking about sex education with young girls, Egger suggests that parents proceed with care. "Even though these girls' bodies are changing, they are still very much young children and emotionally are probably not ready to talk about some of things you might talk to, say, an 11-year-old about," she says. "Start by talking about the physical changes your daughter is going through, without going into details about having sexual relations. Most 8-year-olds haven't even considered dating, let alone having sex."

One bonus to talking to a child early about puberty is that she is more likely to be open to a discussion at 8 than she will be at 10. "When my youngest girl started to enter puberty at 8, we talked a lot about the changes she was going through -- like getting hair under her arms and the beginnings of breasts," says Mary Weisnewski, the mother of two girls, 11 and 16. "But once they reach 10, they clam up and don't want to talk about these things with their parents -- they'd rather talk with their friends."

Jennifer Haupt is a freelance writer based in Bellevue, Wash. She specializes in parenting issues and other lifestyle topics. Her writing has appeared in Parenting magazine, Parenting Insights, Seattle Magazine, Seattle's Child, and online at several news outlets.

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