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.
Talking About Early Puberty
Wibbelsman suggests parents say some or all of the following things to promote healthy self-esteem for children with early puberty.
- “Everybody goes through puberty. You just started early.”
- “It’s important for you to take care of yourself — and I’m here to help.”
- To address mood swings in girls: “At certain times you may have confusing feelings. This is normal. You may feel crazy but you are not.”
If your child is 6 years old, it is not too early to start talking about love and relationships. A good measure of your child’s readiness to talk about the topic is the questions she asks. By answering with truthful, simple information, you can let your child know she can talk openly with you now and throughout puberty.
Precocious Puberty and a Girl’s Behavior
If your daughter has precocious puberty, the influx of hormones could send her into mood swings before any of her friends. Having visible breasts could make your daughter self-conscious, even ashamed of her body.
Girls with precocious puberty can have a higher risk for poor relationships, depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse as teens, maybe a result of standing out before they’re ready for the extra attention.
Despite her young age, take your daughter’s experience seriously. Let her know that the changes she’s going through are normal -- she just started a few years earlier than most kids. Remember that she is still a young child who looks to you for love, comfort, and reassurance.
Early Puberty and a Boy’s Behavior
Early puberty is more common in girls than boys. If your son does start puberty early, he may become aggressive and develop a sex drive ahead of his years. He may have trouble relating to boys his age and have trouble concentrating in school.
As with girls, keep treating your son as the boy he is, even if he’s starting to look like a man. Be affectionate and give him a chance to talk through his frustrations.
Early Puberty and the Outside World
When your child interacts with other kids or adults, questions may arise about her early development. Older kids might want to befriend her because of the way she looks, even though she’s much younger than they are socially and emotionally.
Pay attention to your child’s group of friends -- there are many good reasons to do so. A study in 2007 showed that the age and behavior of children’s social groups played a strong role in whether children with precocious puberty got involved in using drugs or alcohol. As a parent, you can set household rules that will protect your child, including the age of her friends.
De Reyna took a matter-of-fact approach to discussing her daughter’s precocious puberty. “I don’t believe in hiding the truth from kids,” she says. “It makes kids believe there’s something wrong with them.” When a kid at school asked her daughter why she had breasts, de Reyna told her to say, “because I’m a girl,” and leave it at that.
De Reyna took a similar approach with curious adults. Other parents often commented on how tall Emily was compared to the other kids. Kids with precocious puberty are often tall for their age initially, but may stop growing at an earlier age reaching shorter heights as adults. “I’d either just smile and say, ‘yes, she is tall’ or I’d tell them she had a medical condition. That was always enough,” says de Reyna.
Starting Conversations About Early Puberty
Given how important parents are to their children’s self-acceptance, it’s worth it to work through your discomfort and keep the lines of communication open about precocious puberty.
Maybe you worry about embarrassing your child. Wibbelsman says parents can set aside one-on-one time to dispel discomfort. “Go for a ride or go shopping. Make sure your child knows she has your complete attention.”
If you child clams up, you can try putting out books about puberty for your child to read and use them as a conversation starter. For instance, after the book has been around for a week or two, ask your child, “What did you think of that book? Did you have any questions after looking at it?”
Keep in mind that parent-child conversations are not over after one chat, but take place over time. If your early attempts feel dead in the water, rest assured that you’ve let your child know you are open to talking. She now has the opportunity to come to you when she needs you.