When Chaunie Brusie’s body began to develop at the age of 9, she remembers being mocked for having “dinosaur arms”.
“I kept my arms tight against my chest to try and keep my breasts from bouncing up when I ran because it was uncomfortable… and I was embarrassed about it,” she recalls.
Young pubescent children of both sexes are more likely to be sexually harassed by their peers.
Being uncomfortable and embarrassed could be synonymous with puberty. Less universal was his experience of entering this transitional state before reaching a double-digit age – which only exacerbates many of the traditional difficulties associated with pubescence.
Now Brusie is the mother of five children. And in our time, precocious puberty – defined as starting before age 8 in girls and 9 in boys (average ages are 11 and 12, respectively) – is on the rise. This means parents like her need to have conversations and deal with these life-changing changes earlier than previous generations. Failure to do so could end up worsening mental health issues and social upheavals that children face, as studies suggest these difficulties may be associated with precocious puberty and may persist into adulthood and beyond.
Currently, about a third of girls are now affected by the onset of adolescence. The data on boys is more fuzzy, but research published in 2012 suggests that the onset of puberty has become earlier for them, too. Doctors and researchers have not definitively identified the reason for this change, but say there is probably not just one cause for it; it’s possible that stress at home, obesity, environmental toxins, and sometimes hormonal imbalances can cause early development.
Although puberty is often seen through a biological lens, Jane Mendle, associate professor of human development at Cornell University, noted that it is also about social change.
“It changes the way kids think about themselves and the world around them,” Mendle said.
This jump poses challenges for everyone as they go through it, but there is an added risk for those who accelerate puberty long before their peers, with girls bearing the greatest burden, Mendle explained. Although seemingly unrelated, childhood friendship issues, social isolation, and debilitating anxiety can stem from the onset of puberty too early.
“When children go through precocious puberty, they stand out from their peers, which can impact their emotional state and self-confidence,” explained Dr Jami Josefson, pediatric endocrinologist at Ann & Children’s Hospital. Robert H. Lurie of Chicago.
Failure to fit in can also have an impact on a child’s identity development, said psychotherapist Sheryl Ziegler, founder of Start With “The Talk”. For example, Ziegler said that these boys and girls are often teased by their peers, which can make them aware of their physical appearance.
According to Mendle’s latest research, early developers often spend more time thinking and talking to their friends about their anger, act impulsively when angry, and are especially susceptible to social rejection. While these are not signs of mental illness, they can predict who might be likely to experience more psychological difficulties later, she said, stressing the importance for parents to recognize and engage. with their children about precocious puberty.
The first signs may differ from child to child. Some start with breast buds, while others grow fine hairs on the arms, legs, armpits, and pubic area. They might develop acne or their sweat might start to stink. Boys’ testicles get bigger. Add in some mood swings and growth spurts and it’s a keg of powder.
A complication of precocious puberty can be that parents see these changes and do not understand that their child is not more mature than his biological age.
“Teachers, caregivers or family members may treat the child like an older child and have expectations that do not match the child’s actual age,” said Josefson.
Ziegler recently advised a high school student who was over six feet tall and towered over his father, looking more like a high school student. She tells parents that physical precocity doesn’t come with emotional preparation – although kids see it differently. For example, his client wanted to go out with older children, but that didn’t mean he was ready to do it.
For girls, this mismatch between age and perception can be particularly problematic. Although their bodies may appear sexually mature, their minds remain the same as that of any child their age – making the sexual attention to which they are suddenly exposed to confusion and destabilization. Young pubescent children of both sexes are more likely to be sexually harassed by their peers.
It can be difficult for parents to watch their children struggle with these dynamics when they feel powerless to change them. But according to Mendle, just validating that adolescence is a difficult time, and the emotions of turmoil and uncertainty that come with it, sends a message of vital support.
These conversations can also help normalize puberty rather than seeing it as one big, scary transition.
“We need to de-stigmatize precocious puberty by talking about it openly,” said Katie Hurley, a California-based psychotherapist.
For parents who aren’t sure where to start, Hurley suggests that children read one of the many books on the market and then ask their parents questions. She cautions, however, that some of these books do not meet the needs of transgender or non-binary children – so parents should do their research.
Puberty can be exceptionally difficult for this cohort.
“All of a sudden their body transforms into a genre that they don’t identify with,” Mendle said.
According to Dr. Jack Turban, a researcher in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, puberty blockers may be important for this group, although not all transgender adolescents react negatively to puberty and do not wish all puberty suppression.
Early developers often spend more time thinking and talking to their friends about their anger, acting impulsively when they are angry, and are particularly susceptible to social rejection.
But parents shouldn’t just throw a bunch of ideas at kids in the hope that they’ll stick around.
“They need us to model it, teach it, and then do it again,” said Hurley.
For kids who keep thinking about what’s bothering them, Hurley recommends self-talk, which can change the thought process. Show the children how to say to themselves, “OK, my brain is sending me wrong signals. This problem is not as bad as my brain tells me.
Puberty is a messy part of life, noted Hurley, but “children can learn to cope with it if they are given certain skills. And if they haven’t been loaded up front yet, that’s OK. Start now. “