As most parents are painfully aware, every day parenting an adolescent can be tricky and — at times — heartbreaking. But the early onset of puberty can bring an entirely new set of challenges. We asked a pediatric specialist as well as women affected personally by it to weigh in on why early puberty can be particularly problematic (and potentially dangerous).
What is early puberty, exactly?
According to PubertyTooSoon.com, early or “precocious” puberty means that a child experiences puberty before the age of 8 in girls and before the age of 9 in boys. The normal age range is between 8 and 13, and 9 and 14, respectively.
Central precocious puberty, or CPP, is the most common manifestation of early puberty. It occurs when the brain prematurely releases the hormones that trigger puberty in adolescents.
Signs of puberty in young girls include the development of breasts, as well as the start of menstruation. In young boys, the enlargement of the testicles and penis, the increasing occurrence of erections, voice changes, the growth of facial hair and the development of muscles mark puberty.
While CPP affects 1 in every 5,000 to 10,000 children, it’s important to note that not every child who exhibits symptoms of early puberty actually has CPP. Only your child’s doctor can render an accurate diagnosis of CPP and help develop a treatment plan suitable for your child.
What are some ways early puberty can be problematic?
Dr. Binu Parameswaran Pillai, M.B.B.S., M.D., D.M. said there are two main physical issues associated with CPP. Rapid height acceleration, which means children may grow tall early and then stop growing, so they “end up being shorter adults because of early bone fusion,” Dr. Pillai explained. There is also concern that they may exhibit sexual behavior at an earlier age, which is more common in boys. However, children aren’t able to connect what their body is feeling to what it means. “Their brains are still immature,” Dr. Pillai said.
Bullying and adverse psychological impact
“It can be very disturbing for a girl child to bleed,” elaborated Dr. Pillai. “Boys too feel embarrassed looking at their body changes.” Early puberty can also be a significant source of anxiety for the parents of affected children, he adds.
As we all know all too well, bullying is a prevalent and troubling problem among youth. To be blunt, kids can be cruel. “My sweet Laurel started puberty in third grade,” shared mother of four Shannon Hamson, explaining Laurel’s earliest signs were body odor, breast development and early menstruation. “It’s sad to me that young children have to go through it so early. They truly can’t grasp what’s happening to their little bodies.”
“Laurel is very developed for her age, and she has always carried a little extra weight in her tummy area. So when the boobs came, she was told at school she looked pregnant — heartbreaking as a mom to hear another child has made such a comment to a 10-year-old, and I honestly think it’ll stick with her forever.”
Alyssa Sprankles, now in her 30s, says self-esteem issues stemming from going through early puberty still plague her to this day.
“At 7, I didn’t think much of it and most of my classmates didn’t either,” she recalled. “I got my first training bra at 7. It wasn’t until I got a real bra at 8 that the teasing from kids at school started.”
Interestingly, she says most of the ridicule came from kids in older classes as opposed to her own age group. “The older kids would point it out and then get my friends to harass me,” Sprankles explained. “They would hit my boobs or make fun of them. By 9, I started getting into fights and wearing baggy clothes. I stayed as tomboyish as I could, and I continued to do so throughout high school.”
Like Sprankles, Ann-Marie Clark experienced early puberty as a child and was relentlessly teased by the older kids who were friends with her sister, three years her senior. It was this teasing, she’s convinced, that led to a very serious and potentially life-threatening issue: an eating disorder.
“I remember hating the fact I had boobs and all of a sudden my cute, girlish, plain body had become this foreign object,” she told us. “I mainly remember guys in my sister’s class teasing me — to the point where one of them made my life hell. I remember thinking if I could be as thin as possible, I could shrink back into childhood and not be bullied.”
Thankfully, Clark got the help she needed in the form of outpatient and inpatient counseling, noting, “It truly saved my life!” Now, at 30, she is happy to speak with parents about early puberty so they are aware of red flags that could save their child’s life.
Children like Laurel Hamson, who according to her mother, is already starting to exhibit psychological issues associated with early puberty. “She’s only eating grapes at school and coming home with a full lunchbox,” Shannon Hamson lamented. “Middle school is going to be a challenging road with her.”