Early Puberty
Why Girls are Growing Up Faster

 

Excerpts from an article in Time Magazine October 30, 2000 by Michael Lemonick.

Some girls seem to be developing breasts at the tender age of 4. They tiny buds that appeared were gone within a couple of weeks, but three years alter, they reappeared and this time they grew, along with public and armpit hair. By age 9, some girls have full-blown breasts and are getting their period. If these were isolated cases, they might be chalked up to statistical flukes. But it seems as if everywhere you turn these days - outside schools, on soccer fields, at the mall - there are more and more elementary schoolgirls whose bodies look like they belong in high school and more and more middle schollers who look like college coeds. They are also towering over a generation of boys at an earlier age. And, the boys who seem, next to the girls, to be getting smaller every year. Even more troubling than the physical changes is the -potential psychological effect of premature sexual development. The fear is that young girls who look like teenagers will be under intense pressure to act like teenagers. Childhood is short enough as it is, the kids bombarded from every direction by sexually explicit movies, rock lyrics, MTV videos and racy fashions. If young girls' bodies push them into adulthood before their hearts and minds are ready, what will be forever lost?

What's going on? Is it something in the water? That's possible. It wasn't until 1997 that anyone put a finger on it. That's when Marcia Herman-Giddens noticed in her clinical work that more and more young girls were coming in with breasts and pubic hair. Intrigued, she lunched a major study of 17,000 girls to get a statistical handle on the problem. What she found was that the changes of puberty were coming in two stages, each with its own timetable. The average age of menarche had already fallen dramatically (from 17 to about 13) between the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th, mostly owing to improvements in nutrition. What was striking was the onset of secondary sexual characteristics such as breast buds and pubic hair. Significant numbers of white girls - some 15% - were showing outward signs of incipient sexual maturity by age 8, and about 5% as early as 7. For African-Americans, the statistics were even more startling. Fifteen percent were developing breasts or public hair by age 7 and almost half by are 8.

The uncertainties swirling around the phenomenon make it difficult for scientists to nail down a cause. The theory that has the broadest support holds that early puberty is somehow tied up with a much more familiar phenomenon: weight gain. America is in the midst of an epidemic of overweight and obese kids: between the last 70s and early 90s, the percentage of children ages 6 to 11 who were overweight nearly doubled, from 6.5% to 11.4%. We've known for a long time that very overweight girls tend to mature earlier and very thin girls, such as anorexics, tend to mature later than normal. We also know that fat cells produce leptin, which is necessary for the progression of puberty. Overweight girls have more insulin circulating in their blood. Those higher levels appear to stimulate the production of sex hormones from the ovary and the adrenal gland.

There are those who believe the sexualized messages bombarding kids from all sides could be triggering changes in the brain that are jump-starting development. MTV, they say, is absolutely one of the factors in early puberty. But, whatever the cause, doctors say early development has become too widespread to be treated as a medical aberration. In the past girls who developed breasts before age 8 were given hormone therapy to slow things down. But others argue that most girls between 6 and 8 who develop breasts or pubic hair should be reclassified as normal and left untreated. Three-four- and five-year-old girls should still be managed aggressively, but there are far fewer of these.

The physical dangers of sexual harassment and sexually transmitted diseases, and, for those who start menstruating early as well, pregnancy - are only the most obvious fallout of premature development. Academic pressure, drugs and alcohol in the schools, peer pressure and sexually explicit media (especially women's magazines) are all conspiring to foreshorten childhood, with consequences that are still not well understood. One result of these influences is that girls are wearing highly sexualized adult clothing in middle school and below, even when they don't have adult bodies.

What can parents do?  Talk with your kids (boys, too, since very little has been studied about their development during this time.) Explain to those girls who are developing or have their period at 9, just say this does not mean you're a woman; it means you're a nine-year-old having a period and we are going to proceed accordingly. Most important, agree virtually all the experts, is that parents keep communicating with their daughters. It doesn't matter what you tell them. Just get the dialogue going because when they hit puberty, they'll have questions and they will ask you if they feel comfortable.

Boys may continue to taunt girls in middle school when the young males' raging hormones really start to kick in. By then, many boys may despair of ever catching up with their more physically and socially advanced female peers. And their insecurity may be heightened by the fact that some girls have already begun to look forward to high school and the change to meet "real boys" - as opposed to those gawky dweebs in the next seats. Experts say adults can help allay boyish fears by explaining that girls naturally mature faster,. Boys have to be made to feel OK about their development and their bodies. They shouldn't be shamed for being immature. If people come to believe that boys will never grow up, that prophecy will be fulfilled.

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