June 4, 2012

Early Onset Puberty Raises Concerns

Just when we thought that adolescent girls had enough challenges (social norms, media images, emotional and physical changes), new research points to a larger and broader issue: early onset of puberty.

Armpit and pubic hair, pimples, starting menstruation, and breast budding are known physical signs of puberty in girls.  In 1800, these changes began in girls at around age 17.  In 1960, the changes were beginning around age 14.  Now, most commonly, puberty in girls begins at age 11.

Kathy Nesteby, Coordinator for the Iowa Task Force for Young Women with the Iowa Department of Human Rights, recently authored a newsletter on this very issue.  She notes the additional challenges this factor presents:

Girls who develop breasts and other physical characteristics of maturation at an early age are more likely to date at a younger age as well. Cognitive and emotional development trails behind physical development in all adolescents, but is more pronounced for those with early on-set puberty. As a result, this young woman has less capacity to resist pressure from an older boyfriend to become involved in delinquent or other risky behaviors than she would if she were older. Likewise, she may lack the sophistication to resist the influence of peers who perceive her to be older.

Her relationship with her parents and community are also significant. Puberty often signals an increase in conflict with parents, as girls begin to assert their independence. A girl displaying the physical signs of maturation, may experience an increase in expectations about her maturity in general, for which she does not yet have the capacity. Additionally, if her parents use harsh and inconsistent discipline, she is even more at-risk for developing behavioral problems.

Nesteby notes that a recent article in The New York Times (March 30, 2012) cites research done by medical professionals in seeking answers for this anomaly:

In the late 1980s, Marcia Herman-Giddens, then a physician’s associate in the pediatric department of the Duke University Medical Center, started noticing that an awful lot of 8- and 9-year-olds in her clinic had sprouted pubic hair and breasts. She started collecting data, eventually leading a study with the American Academy of Pediatrics that sampled 17,000 girls, finding that among white girls, the average age of breast budding was 9.96. Among black girls, it was 8.87.

When Herman-Giddens published these numbers, in 1997 in Pediatrics, she set off a social and endocrinological firestorm. “I had no idea it would be so huge,” Herman-Giddens told me recently. “The Lolita syndrome” — the prurient fascination with the sexuality of young girls — “created a lot of emotional interest. As a feminist, I wish it didn’t.” Along with medical professionals, mothers, worried about their daughters, flocked to Herman-Giddens’s slide shows, gasping as she flashed images of possible culprits: obesity, processed foods, plastics.

…Was the age of puberty really dropping?  Parents said yes.  Leading pediatric endocrinologists said no. The stalemate lasted …years.  Then in August 2010, well-respected researchers at three big institutions — Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Kaiser Permanente of Northern California and Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York — published another study in Pediatrics, finding that by age 7, 10% of white girls, 23% of black girls, 15% of Hispanic girls and 2% of Asian girls had started developing breasts.

Why is this happening?  Physicians don’t yet understand the reasons, but do suspect several contributing factors.  Being overweight (heavier girls have higher levels of hormones including estrogen, which causes the body to mature quicker).  In addition, animal studies show that exposure to environmental chemicals that mimic estrogen – including those used in agriculture and livestock production – can alter puberty timing.  And the chemical BPA (now found in hard plastics and common products such as dental sealants and cash-register receipts) that mimics estrogen is now found in the bodies of 93% of Americans.  Other causes can include family stress, maternal depression, and divorce.

What can we do about this issue?  Nesteby advises:

Assuring that girls are getting plenty of exercise, eating a healthy diet and not being overexposed to hormone disrupting chemicals are a good place to start…Offering adequate and timely support is crucial as well.  For adult women, who may not have begun to mature until much later, it may be a matter of not assuming the 9 year old you are interacting with has years to go before puberty hits.  She may need your guidance now!  Adults must also refrain from any inadvertent tendency to treat girls as more mature than they might actually be based solely on their appearance.

All the more important are our efforts to reach girls early through Chrysalis After-School programs.  Helping girls understand their own bodies and minds, and supporting their physical and mental health is key – our new GIRLSTRONG! programming around healthy lifestyles is a major effort throughout all 29 Chrysalis After-School locations.  And having this information helps us address emerging concerns for all girls and women.

Thank you for your leadership in this work.