Most parents think their kids grow up too fast. But kids with central precocious puberty (CPP) really do. Girls with CPP start puberty before age 8 and boys before age 9.
This means that some kids -- most of them girls -- see their bodies changing sooner than their peers do. The sense of being different can be one of the hardest parts of early puberty.
Here’s how you can help your child survive the ups and downs.
Let Kids Be Kids
Frank Gaskill, PhD, a psychologist at Southeast Psych in Charlotte, NC., says it’s important to see and treat kids according to their age, not how they look.
“Keep their play time young,” he says. “Don’t expose them to adult television shows or games just because you see them as older.
“Remind teachers and other family members that your child’s still young, despite their changing body,” Gaskill says.
Have 'The Talk'
You probably hoped to put off the sex talk for a few more years. But according to Gaskill, the time to start is now. He stresses that the talk shouldn’t be a one-time thing. Instead, make it an ongoing conversation. If the lines of communication are open, your child is more likely to confide in you in the future.
Here are some pointers to help you get started:
Explain that the changes your child is going through are normal. Paul Kaplowitz, MD, professor emeritus in the division of endocrinology at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, says you should make sure your child knows that what’s happening is a part of life.
“Tell them it happens to everyone, but it happened to them sooner,” Kaplowitz says. “I’ve found that if parents take the time to prepare their kids, they often handle it quite well."
Use the real names of body parts. For example, say penis instead of “pee-pee” and vagina instead of “down there.” Mitchell Geffner, MD, chief of the division of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, suggests telling older kids that “their bodies are starting to grow up like mommy’s or daddy’s.”
Talk more about emotions than thoughts. Ask your child how they’re feeling, but don’t focus on just body changes.
Listen. Be open and nonjudgmental. Let your child know you hear and understand them. If they ask a question you can’t answer, be honest. Say you don’t know but you’ll find the answer and you’ll talk about it together.
If you’re worried about the talk, practice with your partner or a friend.
Offer Emotional Support
One of the best ways to do that is to maintain rituals and routines, Gaskill says. If bedtime has always been 8 p.m., it shouldn’t change just because their body has. Encourage your child to stick to usual activities, like sports and sleepovers, too. Don’t let them shy away from their normal life because they’re embarrassed about their body.
It’s also critical to give your child the space and emotional and social skills to express their feelings. It’s hard enough for teens to deal with all the emotions of puberty, but it’s even harder for a child. Think of your own teen years and how confused and mixed up things seemed. Now imagine feeling that way when you’re 7 or 8 years old. Try to be patient and loving despite your child’s mood swings. That tells them they can count on you.
Above all, Gaskill says, “the most important way to support a child going through this or any process is to love them unconditionally.”
Don’t comment on your child’s looks. Focus on what they do well and praise their hard work at school and play. Don’t tease or make fun of your child and make sure others don’t, either. If someone makes a negative comment about your child’s body, offer a positive comeback.
Kids who are loved and accepted will feel grounded and safe, even when their world is drastically changing.
Help Your Child Stay Healthy
Studies have linked early puberty to obesity, a problem doctors say is all too common in kids.
“I think it's quite clear that some of the early puberty we're seeing is related to obesity. It’s not the whole story, but it’s a factor," Kaplowitz says. He adds that weight loss probably won’t stop or reverse CPP. But it’s important for your child’s overall health.
Don’t comment on your child’s weight or nag them about food. Instead, steer them toward fruits and veggies and away from sweets, sodas, and fast food.
Get Outside Help
“Feel free to seek out support from a mental health professional who is familiar with these issues,” Gaskill says. “Sometimes children will listen to a psychologist before they pay attention to their parents.”
Don’t Worry So Much
Gaskill says parents get concerned about whether their child can handle major physical changes like getting their period years too soon.
“They often experience fear, as well as grief with the apparent loss of the youthful innocence of their child,” he says.
Kaplowitz agrees and says it’s important for parents to separate their own feelings about puberty from their child’s.
“You might be worried about the effects of CPP, but your child is doing fine,” Kaplowitz says. “My feeling is that calm and reassuring parents really can help their child adjust.”