Today, more than 10 percent of girls are beginning puberty before they hit eight years old. But early puberty, sometimes called “precocious puberty,” isn’t as scary as it sounds. Although it may bring to mind images of premature sexuality, Drs. Julianna Deardorff, a clinical psychologist, and Louise Greenspan, a pediatric endocrinologist, have set out to dispel myths in their recent book, The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls. Whether she is experiencing premature body changes, or she’s right on schedule, the entire process can be unsettling for any girl.
“If we can normalize this process for girls, we can alleviate some of the anxieties that girls have,” Deardorff says.
Here, the experts outline six important facts and help you understand what “early puberty” really means.
1. Puberty is not an event—it’s a process.
One of the biggest misconceptions that Greenspan comes across in her practice is that parents believe puberty begins with menstruation. In reality, normal puberty begins much earlier, with one of the first physical signs being breast development or body odor. But the subtle hormonal changes can begin as early as age seven or eight.
2. Early puberty does not correlate to a premature sex drive.
Parents are often upset to find that puberty can begin at age six or seven, Greenspan explains, because they associate it with being sexually active. Put those anxieties to rest:
“Girls at these young ages aren’t thinking about sex,” says Deardorff. “As parents, we have to make sure that we’re not sexualizing that development unintentionally, because that’s already happening enough in our culture.”
3. You can’t ban every endocrine disruptor, but you can monitor the intake.
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that mimic hormones in the body, and unfortunately, can be found in many of our household items. But don’t just throw away your canned food, plastic water bottles, or Teflon pans.
“These chemicals are ubiquitous in our environment and in our daughters’ bodies,” says Deardorff. “What we don’t know is in what dose those become important, and what combination.”
One possible disruptor that stands out to both doctors is lavender. Even if you can’t remember the last time you bought this seemingly inane scent, it’s likely to have shown up in a multitude of personal care products that you and your daughter are using.
“Girls are subjected to a lot of advertising that makes them think they need to start using personal care products,” Greenspan says. “The skin is a very active organ of absorption.” Pay attention to the ingredients in your daughter’s skincare products, but more importantly, evaluate if she really needs to start using these products at all.
4. Don’t avoid meat; embrace fruits and veggies.
More important than buying organic food or swearing off meat entirely is to feed your child a plant-based diet, not one filled with sugary snacks and fast food. Obesity is one of the top environmental stressors that can lead to early puberty, and in their research, both Greenspan and Deardorff say they have seen shifts in early puberty directly correlate to the rising obesity epidemic in our country’s youth. Fat tissue secretes estrogen, and with a boost in estrogen creation comes signs of early puberty.
5. Familial conflict can trigger hormonal changes.
Often, early puberty can be triggered by stress—but what does a young six- or seven-year-old have to be stressed about?
“We’re talking about stressful circumstances in family life,” says Deardorff. “If you live in a family, particularly pre-pubertal, that is low in warmth, unpredictable, or high in conflict, those triggers can start puberty early in girls.”
These familial circumstances can be both in and out of your control. For example, girls who grow up without a biological father in the home are twice as likely to get their periods early, says Deardorff. But, if you have frank and open conversations about the process, you can help reduce stress and anxiety.
“If you minimize it, you’re losing an opportunity to have closeness with your child,” says Greenspan.
6. It may be chemical, but you are still in control.
Both doctors agree that their favorite finding has been the positive effects that parents can have on their developing daughters.
“It all depends on context,” says Deardorff. “If you’re growing up in a loving, safe family environment, it can offset any risks of early puberty in terms of emotional problems or mental health problems.”