No matter what age it occurs, puberty is a transformative—and often very scary—experience. New insecurities and wavering self-esteem are inevitable, and to top it off, these concerns are reinforced by tangible physical changes. There’s always one reassurance for kids and parents: it’s a normal rite of passage that’s happening to everyone else… right?
But what if it all begins in first grade? A new study has brought the alarming possibility of early puberty to light, and 1 in 10 girls in the United States is undergoing menstruation at the age of seven.
While experts can’t pinpoint all of the reasons why early puberty is becoming more common, they can confidently name at least one or two causes contributing to the trend. For one, infant and childhood obesity is on the rise. Susan Pinney Ph.D, a co-author of the National Institute of Health-funded study, explains that it’s believed that girls with more fat tissue may be producing and using estrogen in different ways than leaner girls.
Experts suggest that environmental factors may be another major cause of this phenomenon. Pinney says that exposure to environmental chemicals that mimic estrogen very well could be a major factor. Researchers plan to further explore this theory by analyzing blood and urine samples of groups who experienced early puberty and those who did not. By testing for the presence of certain chemicals and searching for a correlation to timing of puberty, they hope to be able to identify chemicals that have an effect on early puberty.
Although the full chain of events is unclear, better understood is the potential psychological aftermath of early puberty on young girls. Puberty brings on a number of life-changing developments. Imagine these transformations—breast buds, menstruation, new and different feelings, and hormonal rises—beginning to occur prior to a child’s exposure to chapter books and double-digit subtraction.
How do we deal with this startling trend? Young children are naive—and in most, if not all, cases unprepared to handle the “talk” about sex that accompanies the bodily changes for teens, the talk that many parents remember from their own passage into sexual maturation.
Although it’s inevitable that these new bodily developments be addressed as they occur, it’s unnecessary—and perhaps even damaging—to discuss sex with a seven year-old. Instead, Carl Pickhardts Ph.D, maintains that it’s important to broach the two conversations separately, waiting significantly longer to introduce the sex talk. Pickhardts suggests finding an age appropriate source that clearly addresses the changes that will happen to your child’s body, such as an illustrated book.
Bette Freedson, MSW, also offers parents recommendations for handling early puberty in daughters:
- Check with your child’s doctor. Ask about the physical changes your child is going through, to make sure there is no underlying medical issue that needs to be addressed. You may decide to take her for a check up. It is always wise to rule out anything that might be affecting this early development of secondary sexual characteristics.
- Adapt the conversations to your child's age and maturity level. The gist of the information is this: “You are normal. This is normal. These changes happen to everyone. They happen to some sooner than they happen to others.
- Be alert to the embarrassment and fear factors — hers and yours. Kids of all ages get embarrassed about being different. A little girl can get very frightened if she begins to bleed and has no idea why. You may or may not see the warning signs of her precocious puberty before the first menarche. Ideally, you would have prepared her, but it does not always happen that way. If she is frightened or ashamed, let her know that this is normal. Be supportive of the feelings while reassuring her. You can say, “Sometimes girls get scared when this happens, but you are okay.”
Your daughter may be embarrassed even to go to school if she is little and having a period. She may need a lot of help to understand the hygiene involved. Help her, being cautious not to tease or joke. As a parent you may have your own feelings about this event, but it is important not to share them with your child. Talk to other parents or her doctor, but handle her with respectful calm. This will reassure her and help her handle her feelings and the requirements of her puberty.
- Be prepared for questions. Most questions will begin with, or imply: “What” and “Why?” Good answers can be short and simple.
- Q: “Why am I getting hair down there/breasts etc.?”
- A: “Because this is how God/nature/(you pick your word) made people.”
- Q: “What happens to boys?”
- A: “They have boy changes. For example, their voices change.”(In most cases, this may be enough.)
- Q:“Why do bodies change?”
- A: “It is part of growing up.”
- Do not underestimate the precocious peer group. Kids talk to each other. They overhear adults talk, and they see things—a lot of things—on TV. By 10, 9 and even 8, many have some dim awareness of sexuality, even though they may not have a clear idea of the “facts.” Because of this, some older children maturing early, may have more sophisticated questions. If you, like many parents, find it uncomfortable to begin the sex discussion, follow Dr. Pickhardts’ advice, and locate a book that you can read with your child.
- Find support for yourself from your own peers. Talk to other parents who are dealing with the same issues. Find out what their kids are asking and what they are saying to them. Take what you like and leave the rest. You can also check with your pediatrician, school nurse, and guidance counselors for help framing your answers based on your child’s age. Some schools begin to teach about the human body in the early grades. Gearing your answers to what is being taught may help you with what to say and help make things more understandable for your child.