Puberty can be a tough time for any kid. But it might be harder on those with central precocious puberty (CPP). That’s when kids show signs of sexual maturity early. In general, CPP is when puberty starts before age 7 or 8 in girls and before age 9 in boys.
Kids with CPP -- which is more common in girls than boys -- may start to develop years earlier than their friends. These physical and emotional changes can set them apart from their peers. If you or a child you care for has CPP, here are some ways the condition can affect their social life.
Janet Lydecker, PhD, director of the Yale Teen POWER clinic and an assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine, says it’s never easy when children are out of sync with their peers.
“Kids, unfortunately, can be mean,” she says. “And when someone stands out in any way, they tend to be a target for being bullied or teased.”
Lydecker, a licensed psychologist, focuses on the treatment of adolescents with eating disorders and obesity, including those who deal with bullying. She says kids who develop early may go through all of the above. Older peers may sexualize kids who seem older than they are, particularly girls. That can raise the chances that they’ll face sexual abuse.
Kids don’t always admit it if they’re being bullied. Here are some warning signs to watch for:
Withdrawal. Your child may want to avoid certain places or spend more time alone.
Anxiety about school. They may start to really dread going to school. If that happens, you can ask for support from a teacher or a nurse. “Anyone who can be an ally for the child,” Lydecker says.
Disordered eating. Kids may lose control while they eat if they're dealing with a bully. They may binge on lots of food to “escape feelings of being different,” Lydecker says. “We also see purging behaviors as a desperate attempt to change the body to avoid being victimized.”
Changing friendships. This isn’t always a sign something is wrong, but Lydecker says a sudden shift in relationships can be a red flag.
On the flip side, kids who go through puberty early might be bigger or stronger than their peers. They may become bullies themselves, Lydecker says, especially if they feel defensive.
When Kids Can’t Be Kids
A girl or boy who develops young may look older than their actual age. Jami Josefson, MD, an endocrinologist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, says people may end up treating kids with CPP differently. For example, a family member might know your child is only 7. But if a kid looks 11, the adult might get on to them for not acting like “a big girl,” Josefson says.
That can happen at school, too.
“Teachers can unknowingly have higher expectations, even though the child is only [acting] the age that they should be,” Josefson says.
You don’t need to get into the details of CPP. But Lydecker thinks you should still speak up for your child.
“I really do advocate with parents that they say, ‘Well, she’s only 7.’ ”
Snags With Sports
If your child has their period, they’ll have to handle hygiene issues. Whether it’s swimming at camp or gymnastics practice, it could affect whether they take part in certain activities. Josefson says that can make them feel different than other kids.
Alla Vash-Margita, MD, chief of pediatric and adolescent gynecology at Yale Medicine, says kids with CPP can use medication to suppress early puberty or periods. But there are other ways to help your child stay active with their friends, even if they have a monthly cycle.
One choice is to teach your child how to use menstrual products like tampons. Or maybe your child just sits out practice every now and then.
Whatever your family decides, Vash-Margita says it can be helpful to reach out to a school nurse or teacher to make sure that your child has support.
Check In With Your Child
This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s important to keep tabs on your child’s life. Lydecker suggests you do that every day. Maybe you have a chat when you get home from work or over a family dinner. She says you can also just come right out and say that you want to know if anyone or anything is making your child unhappy. Then offer to help them solve whatever problem comes up.
But make sure they know you won’t do anything before talking to them first.
Here are some other tips:
Know what your child is doing online. One way to do this, Lydecker suggests, is to have your child use a computer that’s in a shared family room. And she says it’s a good idea to monitor what they do or say on social media and through text messages.
Get outside help. It’s OK if you need extra support. “Just about any child psychologist works with parents just as much as they work with kids,” Lydecker says. These are experts who know how challenging it can be to deal with a child who’s not on the same emotional or developmental timeline as their peers.
Kids with CPP often have lots of people looking out for them. That may include:
Let your child know they can reach out to you or another adult if they have any kind of issue.
“Open conversation is always key,” Vash-Margita says.