How parents can help kids manage early puberty

Early puberty or precocious puberty describes puberty that begins before age 8 in girls and before age 9 in boys. Find out how parents can help their kids through the physical, social and emotional challenges early puberty presents.

Going through puberty can be a challenge for any child. But children who experience early puberty can have physical, social and emotional challenges that their peers may not, according to researchers. Early puberty or precocious puberty describes puberty that begins before age 8 in girls and before age 9 in boys. Girls are much more likely than boys to experience this condition. If your child experiences early puberty, how can you help?

Age of puberty has been declining for decades

The mean age of puberty in girls has been falling in Western populations for the past 150 years. The average age of puberty onset in girls is now 10½. Girls get their period on average at age 12½ to 13. More than 1 in 7 (15%) of American girls start puberty at age 7, and more than 1 in 4 (28%) by age 8, according to the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research. Boys are now reaching puberty by age 10, which is six months to two years earlier than previous generations of boys.

Once started, the whole process of puberty takes three to four years. One of the most noticeable parts of puberty is that girls usually grow taller than boys around 11 or 12 years old. Boys catch up and pass them by around age 14 or so. There is no definitive cause for why boys and girls are reaching puberty at younger ages, but childhood obesity, environmental factors and stress could play a role.

Resources for parents

S. Paige Hertweck, M.D., pediatric and adolescent gynecologist with Norton Children’s Gynecology, recommends a couple of helpful resources:

Girlology: A Girl’s Guide to Stuff that Matters,” a book authored by a pediatrician and OB/GYN. Girlology also has an online community.

  • “The Care and Keeping of You,” a book divided into two age-appropriate volumes for reading and discussion.
  •  “What’s the Big Secret?” for younger children.

What are the effects of early puberty?

When it comes to early puberty, boys and girls can begin to feel isolated, embarrassed and ashamed about their body and experience issues with their peers, including bullying. Girls are more likely to experience the negative psychological and social consequences of puberty. Studies show that girls are more likely to internalize these feelings, which can prolong the unease and increase their risk for depression. Further, a 2018 study shows girls who begin puberty earlier are at higher risk for mental health issues. The study showed that these girls are more likely to become depressed during their teen years, which can persist into adulthood.

Boys also experience social and emotional effects of early puberty. Boys with early puberty experience more social isolation and are more likely to have conflicts with family and friends, according to one study.

Norton Children’s Gynecology

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How can parents or guardians help children who are experiencing early puberty?

Helping kids navigate social and emotional hurdles during puberty that are tricky at 13 can be even more so when a child is 7 or 8 years old. But these hurdles call for parenting skills that apply at any age: being emotionally present for children during developmental milestones, witnessing their growing pains and providing comfort to help them build resilience when life throws them curveballs. What else can parents do?

  • Start a conversation.Caregivers shouldn’t be afraid to start the conversation about puberty early, so the transition can seem less foreign and scary. Caregivers should consider talking about sexual development by age 6 or 7, and keep the lines of communication open for questions and worries their child may have.
  • Be an advocate.When your child experiences issues with school, sports or extracurriculars, talking with teachers and coaches may lead to adjustments that can improve your child’s situation.
  • Don’t be afraid to get help.Maybe your son starts refusing to shower or wear deodorant. Maybe your daughter has lost interest in a sport she’s always loved. It’s OK to get help from your child’s pediatrician about how to manage the ebb and flow of early puberty. Your pediatrician also can refer your child to a pediatric gynecologistor pediatric urologist for further care regarding puberty.