Kids are growing up so fast these days." We often hear parents saying this at the sidelines of a soccer game or a school event. When parents make comparisons with their own childhoods, it seems true. But it's also literally true—the average age of the onset of puberty is earlier than it was two decades ago. So what's going on?
Studies show that there hasn't been much of a decline in the age a girl first gets her period—the average is around 12 years old, yet the other aspects of sexual development are happening quite a bit earlier. Judy Blume's Margaret was longing for a bra in sixth grade. These days, girls are developing breasts in third or fourth grade. For boys, puberty starts at nine or ten. Interestingly, race is a factor—the average age for black children is a year earlier than for white and Hispanic children.
There is a lot of controversy as to why "normal" puberty is occurring earlier. Parents tend to speculate that it has something to do with the hormones in meat and dairy and the obesity epidemic. Yet Kingston mom Karen Johnson's daughter Samantha (not her real name) started to show signs of puberty at eight despite being long and lean and eating a healthy diet. She got her first period just after her 10th birthday, which, while not exactly "normal," is not unheard of.
What's Wrong with Early Puberty?
Dr. Herman-Giddens, one of the researchers to first identify the trend of earlier puberty, expresses concern that "by hastening puberty, you're actually shortening childhood," particularly since puberty is a "physiological change in your brain."
After puberty begins, the brain's circuitry reforms to make higher-order thought possible, enabling mature teens and adults to think abstractly, to consider alternative viewpoints, and to be autonomous. However, in gaining higher-order thought, the brain loses cognitive flexibility, making it more difficult to, say, learn an instrument or a language.
The risks associated with earlier puberty aren't just physiological. Looking more mature puts kids at risk to have sex, drink alcohol, and try drugs earlier. While it hasn't been an issue for Samantha, she still has had a difficult time emotionally and socially. Her mood swings are dramatic; she feels out of place compared to her friends and insecure about her body. Johnson says, "She has lost her childhood much sooner than she should have, and it breaks my heart."
What's Causing This Trend?
The artificial bovine growth hormone (rBGH) given to cows is probably not responsible for early puberty, though there may be other reasons to avoid it. Since puberty requires a certain weight-to-body-fat ratio, obesity is definitely contributing. Heavier kids have also been found to have a higher level of the leptin protein, which stimulates puberty hormones.
The hormone cortisol, released by the body in response to a variety of stressors, may also bring on early puberty. Numerous studies show a connection between earlier puberty and stressful home environments, particularly where there has been sexual abuse or a father's absence. However, there is another more likely source hastening puberty.
Many industrial and pharmaceutical toxins, so pervasive in everyday life, contain endocrine disruptors—chemicals that mimic and influence hormones. Breast milk in the average American mom has been found to contain traces of flame retardants. The weed killer Atrazine has been found in 80 percent of randomly sampled public water supplies. Last year, Bisphenol-A (BPA) was banned from use in sippy cups and baby bottles, yet despite the fact that it is a proven endocrine disruptor, BPA continues to be used in cans and food packaging.
Dr. Rise Finkle, a naturopath with Stone Ridge Natural Medicine, believes children are much more sensitive than adults, and that toxins have a cumulative impact. "Even a little has a huge effect," she explains. "Their livers can't detox it all." This isn't just the belief of alternative practitioners. Last year, the scientific journal Endocrine Reviews published a paper reviewing 800 scientific studies and concluding that even a low dose of an endocrine disruptor can have profound adverse effects on human health. These scientists are concerned about how this impacts infants and children.
What Can Parents Do?
Even if your children haven't experienced signs of impending puberty, Aimee Gallin, LCSW, a therapist at Maverick Family Counseling, advises discussing it. "No matter what age your child starts to go through puberty, you will benefit from starting a dialogue," she says.
Gallin recommends parents act as keen observers. "It is especially important as a parent of a child starting puberty. If you are noticing signs of puberty, start an open, nonthreatening dialogue," she says. She also advises against bombarding them with too much information as well as asking open-ended questions to see what information they already have. "Be sure they have all the necessary information regarding what goes along with sexual activity (emotional entanglement, power dynamics, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy). Keep letting your child/teen know that you are open to answering any questions they might have. Help your children to make choices that stem from an empowered place to make choices based in self-confidence, and, if possible, let them know you think they are capable of doing this," she says.
Rearranging Our Expectations
Peter Brady said it best when his voice cracked, singing "When it's time to change, you've got to re-arrange" on "The Brady Bunch." Going through puberty is always a fraught time in a child's life, and it can add anxiety for the growing kid and the family. While we can't keep our kids in a bubble, we can fight the good fight and try to keep them safe. And if and when they happen to experience something disorienting like this, we just need to do our best to keep them close and remember that just because the timing may earlier than we may have expected, puberty is still a special time that deserves to be celebrated.