Reprinted from NPR, "How To Help A Kid Survive Early Puberty," May 16, 2019, by Juli Fraga.
From surging hormones and acne to body hair and body odor, puberty can be a rocky transition for any kid. But girls and boys who start physically developing sooner than their peers face particular social and emotional challenges, researchers find.
"Puberty is a pivotal time in kids' lives, and early maturing boys and girls may be more likely to struggle psychologically," says Jane Mendle, a psychologist and associate professor at Cornell University.
A 2018 study conducted by Mendle and her team found that girls who entered puberty significantly earlier than their peers were at higher risk for mental health concerns. They're more likely to become depressed during adolescence, the study finds, and this distress can persist into adulthood.
"For some girls, puberty can throw them off course, and the emotional stress can linger," Mendle says, "even after the challenges of puberty wane."
While the age-range for puberty varies, says Jennifer Dietrich, a pediatric gynecologist at Texas Children's Hospital, the average age of menses is 12.3 years old. However, about 15% of females start puberty much sooner — by the age of 7.
Pediatricians haven't identified a lone cause for this shift, but Louise Greenspan, a pediatric endocrinologist at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, says childhood obesity, environmental chemical-contributors, and the effects of chronic stress — a hormonal response to neglect or abuse in the family, for example — may all play a role.
At a crucial time when kids long to fit in, puberty can make them stand out. And when breast buds and body hair sprout during elementary school, children often feel exposed. Unable to hide their sexual development from others, they may feel ashamed or embarrassed.
Cosette Taillac, a psychotherapist at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif., recalls a particular client, a 9-year-old girl, who was started to feel self-conscious playing soccer because her body was developing.
When the little girl no longer wanted to participate in sports — something she had always loved — her parents sought Taillac's help.
"She didn't want to dress in front of her teammates," says Taillac.
Studies show girls who physically mature early, may be more likely than boys to ruminate about these uneasy feelings. According to researchers, this can prolong the emotional distress, which may increase their risk of depression and anxiety.
Still, though girls are more likely to internalize the stress they feel, boys aren't unscathed, says Mendle.
In research by Mendle and her colleagues, early maturing boys were more likely than others to feel socially isolated and to face conflict with friends and classmates. "This may increase their risk of depression," she says,"but we're uncertain if these effects last into adulthood."
Because information about early development tends to focus on girls, parents are often perplexed when their sons start puberty early, says Fran Walfish, a child and adolescent psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Their first clue, she says, may come when a tween boy refuses to shower or wear deodorant.
Helping kids navigate these new social and emotional hurdles can be tricky, especially since puberty spans several years. But don't be afraid to reach out — or to start the conversation early.
Greenspan suggests talking to children about sexual development by the age of 6 or 7. "Starting the conversation when kids are young, and keeping lines of communication open can make the transition less scary," she says.
At times, parents may also need to advocate for their children. "My client's parents worked with the soccer coach to create more privacy for her when dressing for team events," says Taillac. The simple adjustment helped the girl feel safe and more confident.
Of course, not all kids are eager for a parent's help; some shy away from even talking about their newfound struggles. That's sometimes a sign they're confused or overwhelmed, child psychologists say.
"It's important for parents to realize that puberty triggers identity questions like 'Who am I?' and 'Where do I fit in?' for boys and girls," Walfish says.
Taillac says reading books together can help. "Books provide a common language to discuss what's going on, which can open up conversations between parents and children," she says.
For elementary school girls, "The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls," by Valorie Schaefer can be a helpful book. Reading "The Tween Book: A Growing Up Guide for the Changing You," by Wendy Moss and Donald Moses can be informative for boys and girls, even as they reach the teen years.
Seeing your child mature early can also worry a parent. If you find yourself unsure of how to intervene, psychologists say, remember that distraught kids often want the same thing we all seek when we're upset — a generous dose of empathy.
Luckily, compassion doesn't require parents to have all the answers. Puberty calls for the same good parenting skills as any other age: being emotionally available to kids through their developmental milestones, witnessing their growing pains, and providing comfort when life throws them curveballs.
That advice is simple; the effects powerful. Scientific evidence shows this kind of parental support helps foster emotional resilience, and that bolsters kids' health and relationships for years to come.
Listen to an interview with Jane Mendle to learn more about her research on early puberty in girls.
Listen to the HD Today e-NEWS Listen Notes playlists of podcasts featuring HD faculty interviews.
The Nurse-Family Partnership Program received California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare's (CEBC) highest rating, "Well-supported by Research Evidence" in the following areas: Home Visiting Programs for Child Well-Being; Home Visiting Programs for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect; Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (Primary) Programs; Teen Pregnancy Services.
This webinar, hosted by Consumer Voice in collaboration with the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), discusses resident-to-resident mistreatment and how to prevent and respond to these incidents.
Dr. Karl Pillemer, Director, Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, Hazel E. Reed Professor in the Department of Human Development, Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College, shared findings, recommendations, and best practices from his research regarding the prevalence of resident-to-resident elder mistreatment in nursing facilities. Consumer Voice staff shared information and resources to help increase awareness of these incidents and demonstrate how individualized care is critical in preventing and responding to resident-to-resident mistreatment.
The slides for this webinar can be downloaded as a PDF.
This brochure (and large font fact sheet), a product produced by the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care in collaboration with the National Center on Elder Abuse, identifies mistreatment, shares information about an individual’s rights, and offers resources where they can seek help. The brochure and large font fact sheet can be purchased in bulk from the Consumer Voice store.
Long-Term Care Ombudsman Advocacy: Resident-to-Resident Aggression (Technical Assistance Brief)
Resident-to-resident aggression is a serious issue that has a significant negative impact on all residents involved, but incidents are often not reported and investigated. The purpose of this brief is to provide an overview of resident-to-resident aggression in order to assist Long-Term Care Ombudsman (LTCO) programs in effectively responding to complaints involving resident-to-resident aggression, as well as help prevent RRA and reduce the prevalence of these incidents. Click here to view the brief.
Reducing the Risk Plus (RTR+) is an intervention for reducing sexual risk-taking in adolescents by Valerie Reyna and was rated as a best-evidence HIV behavioral intervention by the CDC. Best-evidence interventions are HIV behavioral interventions that have been rigorously evaluated and have been shown to have significant and positive evidence of efficacy (i.e., eliminate or reduce sex- or drug-risk behaviors, reduce the rate of new HIV/STD infections, or increase HIV-protective behaviors). These interventions are considered to be scientifically rigorous and provide the strongest evidence of efficacy. These interventions meet the PRS efficacy criteria for best evidence ILIs/GLIs/CPLs or efficacy criteria for best evidence CLIs.