Healthy Kids    

Your daughter is developing early - should you worry?

Hudson Valley experts weigh in on this increasing phenomenon

daughter developing early puberty

Over the past nine months, Sarah Tucker* of Kingston has watched her 9-year-old daughter undergo a rapid – and in Tucker’s words, "scary” – transformation. While the fourth grader has not yet begun menstruating, she has developed breasts, grown two inches and experienced acne breakouts.


Tucker says one day recently she noticed her daughter had started developing pubic hair. “It scares me that my only girl is growing up so quickly,” says the mom of two. “From what I’ve read, it’s only a matter of time before her period starts.”


On top of this physical change is puberty’s emotional roller coaster. “The other day she just cried all day for no reason. There wasn’t much we could do.”


Tucker’s daughter is like many young girls today, entering puberty and experiencing all the hormonal and emotional changes that go with it years earlier than previous generations. This “precocious puberty” is, according to the National Institutes of Health, when the regular signs of puberty begin in girls younger than 8 years old. While it can occur in boys as well, it is more common in girls.


During puberty, the brain releases gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which stimulates sex hormone production, sexual development, and physical growth. In girls, the result is the growth and maturation of the ovaries. In boys, it leads to the growth and maturation of the testicles. For both sexes, puberty also means the appearance of pubic and underarm hair, and a rapid increase in height.


When a child experiences precocious puberty, the sex hormones are released early, causing the body changes that go along with the release to happen early as well.

Read more: Discussing sexuality with your pre-teen 

Precocious puberty can be disturbing both for child and parent. While an 8-year-old female brain may function as a little girl, her body exhibits a more womanly maturity.

For Tucker, the changes in her daughter meant a physical maturity level she wasn’t certain her daughter was ready for. Many questions and concerns come to the forefront: How do I discuss my child’s changing body with her? Will my child’s emotional state be affected by her early body changes?


If you feel your child is developing earlier than most of her peers, make an appointment with the child’s pediatrician to discuss these concerns.


It can be difficult to pinpoint when puberty is considered “early”. The so-called normal age range for puberty varies somewhat for Caucasians and African-Americans. According to Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., president of the National Research Center for Women and Families, “Puberty usually happens between ages 10 and 14, and some African American girls start puberty earlier than white girls, making their age range for puberty 9 to 14.”


She adds that there is not enough information on the rate of puberty in Asian or Hispanic girls to have good statistics on this group.


Surprisingly, the age menstruation starts isn’t all that different from 45 years ago in white girls, and only about six months earlier for African American girls. However, according to the National Research Center for Women and Families, the development of breasts and pubic hair by age 9 is rising; 15 percent of white girls and half of African American girls fall into this category.


Why are girls entering puberty earlier?

No one knows for sure why puberty may be starting early. “The most widely accepted theory is better nutrition,” says Nyack psychologist Eric Neblung, Ph.D. “Improved nutrition results in more body fat and body mass, which sets the stage for the onset of puberty.”


Obesity, dietary factors, environmental factors, and genetics can contribute to early puberty. Over-eating and lack of exercise can lead to obesity, which then can bring on early development.


Chemicals in our environment – from fertilizers used on our lawns, to toxins in our air and water, to chemicals in the creams and soaps we use – that contain hormone-like properties may be another reason. A new study by the Environmental Working Group found certain chemicals (including phthalates, triclosan and parabens) found in cosmetics and body care products that appear to disrupt the endocrine system, which regulates hormones. Bisphenol A, a hormone-mimicking chemical found in plastic baby bottles, water bottles and aluminum food cans, has been cited as well.


Genetics, too, may play a role. If Mom started menstruating early, it’s more likely that Daughter will, too. “I first got my period at 12,” says Tucker, who expects her daughter to begin her cycle by the time she’s 10.

Read more: The emotional toll of early puberty

Your daughter’s physical versus emotional maturity

Early physical development may affect a child socially. A 14-year-old dealing with raging hormones is difficult enough, but for an 8-year-old whose mental maturity is, most likely, not in line with her physical maturity, the changes are harder to understand. She may feel embarrassed by her changing body and withdraw from friends and family. She may also be teased because she is taller than the boys in the class or she wears a bra.


This teasing can lead to a feeling of rejection – a feeling that “I just don’t fit in anymore” – which can then affect other areas of a young girl’s life.


“Many times poor self-esteem, poor school performance and other stress-related disorders arise,” says pediatrician Janice Montague, MD, of Tuxedo Pediatrics.


Communication is key for your child right now

It is important for parents to set their role with their children early on to maintain the open lines of communication. Doing so provides strong support for the child’s physical and mental well being. “Children know their body is changing, and the opportunity to talk about their concerns may be a welcome relief,” says Dr. Neblung.


“Parents often provide the sole support for these kids, since their peers aren’t sharing the same bodily and emotional changes,” Dr. Montague stresses. “Always give kids honest information in easy to understand phrases.”


Let your child know she’s not alone – everyone goes through these body changes, but some do sooner than others. Explain that even though her body is more adult-like, she is not an adult. This is especially important for her safety. She may be subject to the attention of older peers that she is emotionally unequipped to handle.


Be aware of withdrawal from family and friends, depression, loss of interest school or home activities, and slipping grades. Talk to your child about her feelings and be available so that she feels comfortable addressing difficult issues.


Your reaction to your child’s body changes will greatly affect her attitude. Help her celebrate her new maturity, rather than feel embarrassed by it. Help her understand that these changes don’t affect who she is inside. Praise her accomplishments at school, on her sports team or other activities, and be supportive.


If a child is having difficulty adjusting to the changes she’s experiencing, consider consulting with a child psychologist. It’s imperative to ask questions regarding the psychologist’s expertise and be sure the doctor is trained to work with children and adolescents.


The combination of open discussions with your child, consults with your pediatrician, pediatric endocrinologist, or child psychologist will certainly form a good support system for you and your child.

Donna McDine is a freelance writer.