While puberty is a normal and natural progression into sexual maturity, it is often a word that invokes memories, images and emotions of a time of change that for many adults was confusing, anxiety-provoking and embarrassing. While children most commonly enter puberty around the ages of 9-16 years for girls and 9-14 years for boys, for some children, the onset of the physical, hormonal and sexual changes associated with puberty happens at an earlier age. Early onset puberty, otherwise known as Precocious Puberty, is defined when a child shows signs of puberty before the age of 8-9 years (University of Michigan Health System). These signs may include: the budding of breasts, growth acceleration, pubic and underarm hair, body odor, menstrual bleeding and enlargement of the testes and penis.
Prevalence and Causes
Australian research suggests that around 16% of girls and 6% of boys enter puberty as young as 8 years old and research suggests that average age of puberty onset has reduced across the globe (ABC, 2013; Tremblay & Frigon, 2005). Typically the causes of Precocious Puberty are unknown. Some medical conditions, such as obesity and pituitary and adrenal gland problems appear to be related to the onset of Precocious Puberty for some. There is also speculation that environmental factors may play a role in triggering puberty in young children. For example, there is some emerging research suggesting a link between environmental chemicals and the disruption of the body’s endocrine system, initiating the premature onset of puberty, however, these links are currently tentative (ABC, 2013). Interestingly, recent research from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne suggests that stress, anxiety and difficult peer relationships in the preschool years may increase children’s risk of entering Precocious Puberty (ABC, 2013). This latest research supports earlier findings that exposure to chronic stress can accelerate children’s progression into puberty (Tremblay & Frigon, 2005).
Entering puberty in adolescence is widely agreed to be a time of great change and adjustment. Not only are young people adjusting to the physical changes associated with puberty, but also managing the hormonal changes. Hormonal changes can be quite varied and dramatic and increase children’s risk to experiencing a whole host of emotional difficulties. For example, hormones such as estradiol and gonadal sex steroids, released during puberty, have been linked to increased levels of depression, anxiety and heightened emotionality amongst adolescents (Mendle, Turkheimer & Emery, 2007). Unfortunately, when children enter into puberty early, the challenges and changes encountered in puberty seem to be magnified. Children who experience Precocious Puberty have to manage significant physical and hormonal changes at an earlier stage to their peers and at a time when they are less likely to be both emotionally and cognitively ready (Mendle et al., 2007). Children experiencing Precocious Puberty have been found to be at increased risk of emotional and behavioural problems compared with their peers (ABC. 2013)
What can I do to support my child?
Supporting children entering puberty at any age is essential and for children who experience Precocious Puberty, support provided needs to be consistent, ongoing and involve the child’s wider support system.
- Seek medical advice. While the causes of Precocious Puberty are most often unknown, in some cases it may be triggered by medical conditions that need to be addressed. Some helpful questions to ask your medical practitioner may be whether there are any known causes for your child’s symptoms, whether there is anything to slow or delay the process and the risks involved. Additionally, your medical practitioner may be able to provide advice on how to explain puberty to your child.
- Educate yourself and others. Gain an understanding of the changes that your child is likely to experience so you are best able to answer any questions or concerns your child may have. Discuss what you have learnt with your family and school community to ensure the people important in your child’s life are aware of the changes taking place for your child. It may also be appropriate to discuss these changes with your child’s best friend or close circle of friends to minimise your child feeling like they need to be secretive or isolated at this time.
- Create an open and loving environment with your child. Be available to talk, listen to your child and keep your reactions calm. Children often worry about upsetting their parents with questions about sensitive topics so a keeping your reactions and emotions calm and supportive will help your child be open with you. Discussions about puberty are also likely to involve sensitive issues, so it is important to remain factual and calm to minimise children feeling uncomfortable or too embarrassed to discuss these changes.
- Remember your child’s developmental age. Precocious puberty can be very confusing as children’s physical bodies are maturing ahead of their emotional and cognitive development, which can often change our own or others expectations of the child. For example, your child may be mistakenly viewed as older than they really are, and expected to behave and act like a much older child. Remind yourself, extended family and school of your child’s developmental age and the appropriate expectations for that age.
- Expect and seek support for emotional changes and stress. Children who enter puberty earlier than their peers are more susceptible to changes in mood and emotional state than their peers. This can be most difficult and can often lead to children being misunderstood, isolated and in some cases, victimised. Help your child label their emotions, use positive coping strategies such as talking with their parents, and seek professional help if you notice marked changes to your child’s mood and anxiety levels.
- Get practical. For children experiencing Precocious Puberty, what are seemingly small, normal, everyday activities, can become stressful and anxiety provoking. For example, going to the toilet at school can be distressing for girls who have started menstruating if they are worried about there not being enough toilet paper, soap or an appropriate disposal bin. Identify all the situations and places that may become difficult for your child and make plans for each (eg. pack a personal supply of toilet paper). During the readjustment period it may be necessary to simplify your child’s daily routine to minimise stress and worry by changing or taking a break from school-based activities (eg. swimming carnival) and extracurricular activities (eg. dance lessons).
- Be your child’s safe haven. At a time where children can be feeling different, isolated and confused, be your child’s coach and cheering squad. Demonstrate love and affection and give your child all the affirmation they need by valuing and engaging in their skills, gifts, talents and interests. Ask close family members and friends to be actively involved in your child’s life and select a teacher at your child’s school who can provide your child with the extra support they need.
University of Michiagn Health System http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/puberty.htm
E. & Emery, R. (2007). Detrimental Psychological Outcomes Associated with Early Pubertal Timing in Adolescent Girls. Developmental Review, 27 (2): 151-171.
Tremblay, L. & Frigon, J. (2005). Precocious Puberty in Adolescent Girls: A Biomarker of Later Psychosocial Adjustment Problems. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 36 (1): 73-94.