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  • Knowledgebase: Questions about Sex, Puberty, and Periods

    Questions about Sex, Puberty, and Periods, for adolescents and their parents.

    12. Puberty: Growing Up Early - Top

    As most women recall, developing breasts and pubic hair, along with starting menstruation, signaled that you were no longer a child. You had passed the three major milestones of puberty and were on the road to womanhood. But what happens when girls who, chronologically speaking, are still "little girls" hit puberty?
    When the beginnings of breasts start forming by age 7 or 8 and menstruation begins by age 10? It's a phenomenon increasingly faced by parents and pediatricians today as the average age of puberty has dropped in recent years, resulting in children who can have the body of a 14-year-old, yet only possess the emotional maturity of a fourth grader. "When puberty starts early, your child's body is suddenly giving signals that aren't true about the rest of her development," says Heather Johnston Nicholson, Ph.D., director of research at Girls Incorporated, a national nonprofit organization that conducts programs designed to enhance self-esteem in girls. While some boys today are also starting puberty at an earlier age, they don't face the same issues as girls. That's because the physical changes that girls undergo -- the development of breasts and curves -- are more dramatic and more visible to others. Given some added attention and extra sensitivity from parents, though, most girls can weather this transition without major problems. But, as Deborah Tolchin, MD, FAAP, an associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York, puts it, "It's a heavy burden to put on a young girl. "

    What Is Puberty? Basically, puberty is a period during which children develop the ability to reproduce. It signals the start of adolescence, a longer, largely psychological process that -- especially for boys -- can extend beyond the teen years. Years ago, puberty typically began during the mid-teen years. But since the start of this century -- due in large part to better nutrition -- the average starting age of puberty for girls has dropped to somewhere between ages 8 and 13. Recent research has revealed that puberty seems to begin even earlier for many healthy African-American girls: a 1997 study found that (for unexplained reasons) 25 percent start puberty at age 7 and a relatively high percentage are menstruating by age 9.

    Leaders of the Pack- Most of the concerns about early puberty have focused on girls, because for boys, being the first on the block to mature is mostly a bonus. Biologically speaking, boys are generally about two years behind girls on the developmental ladder anyway, starting puberty on average between the ages of 10 and 12. That means even an early developing boy is rarely the first in a coed class to start maturing. Another factor in boys' favor is that their sexual maturation takes place over a longer period of time (as long as six years) and is a more subtle, private transformation.

    The first signs that a boy is entering puberty are the enlargement of the testicles and a darkening and roughening of the skin on the scrotal sac. Next pubic hair begins to appear, the penis starts to widen and lengthen, facial hair appears, and the voice begins to deepen. Boys also experience a spurt in height and develop a more muscular frame -- both of which are natural confidence boosters. Often, boys who mature early become the leaders in their peer group.

    For girls, on the other hand, being the pioneers of puberty can be more problematic. For three out of four girls, the appearance of breast buds is the first sign of puberty; for the remainder, it's a little bit of pubic hair. About two to three years after breast buds or pubic hair appears, menstruation typically begins and there’s a rapid growth in height. But the mere appearance of breast buds in a relatively young girl has sent some families into a panic, particularly when (as is common) the breasts aren't initially the same size. "I get frantic calls from mothers who say, 'My 9-year-old has a lump in her breast.' They think it's cancer," says Dr. Tolchin, who must gently explain that their daughter is simply ahead of the puberty pack. Because young girls often are too scared or shy to express their fears, Dr. Tolchin makes a point of mentioning, during a physical exam, that a girl's breasts might sometimes feel tender or sore. "It's very reassuring to them." Even the discovery of pubic hair can be frightening to young girls if they don't yet know what a woman's body looks like, adds Tessa G. Lebinger, MD, FAAP, a pediatric endocrinologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College. "They need to be made aware that all people go through these changes."

    Girls soon discover that simply acquiring breasts and a more shapely figure can radically change the way they're perceived by adults. "More developed girls suddenly have a maturity attributed to them that they aren't psychologically ready to handle," says Robert T. Brown, MD, FAAP, chief of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. Some parents react to a daughter's older look by increasing household chores and responsibilities. They may express less patience for what is now deemed "childish" behavior and fathers can be particularly at a loss when, seemingly overnight, their little girls start turning into little women. Many worry that once innocent expressions of affection, like kissing and sitting on Daddy's lap, take on sexual connotations and will no longer be appropriate. A 9-year-old may still want to hug her father, but he might back off. He's frightened and uncomfortable, and that's his way of dealing with it. For a child already dealing with the transformation of her body, though, the sudden change in Dad's behavior can be unsettling and hurtful. - Updated: March 8, 2001

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