Bette J. Freedson
Whether due to hormonal anomalies, environmental toxins, or some evolutionary mystery we do not yet fully fathom, many children between 5 and 9 are experiencing early sexual maturation. When development of sexual characteristics occurs before 8 for girls, and before 9 for boys, it is considered precocious puberty.
What to watch for:
- Watch for weight gain. Some research correlates obesity with early puberty.
- Watch for signs of sexual maturation, such as increased growth rate, especially height, development of underarm and/or pubic hair, menstruation, body odor, development of breasts in girls, deepening of voice and enlargement of testicles and penis in boys, and possible acne in both genders.
- Be aware of behavioral changes that have adolescent characteristics or indicate some emotional condition that differs from your child’s typical temperament.
- Make sure your child has adequate medical checkups to identify any underlying endocrine or other health factors.
- Stay alert to any reports of teasing and/or bullying if your young child starts to look different physically from his/her peers.
Puberty in adolescence includes both sexual and emotional maturation.
In precocious puberty, the emotional and cognitive development does not parallel the sexual development.
What to do if precocious puberty happens to your child:
- Depending on your child’s age, help him/her to understand that these changes are normal and happen at different times for different people. Help your child understand what her body is going through. Refrain from shaming because of odor, bleeding, or size. Teasing or shaming from parents can have long lasting negative effects. Help siblings refrain from making jokes or shaming behaviors as well. Rather, educate your youngster about hygiene and self-care. If your child is having a particularly difficult time with the changes, seek professional help.
- When sexual maturation occurs earlier than peers, there can be teasing and/or bullying behaviors by peers. Teach your child the difference between tattling and reporting. Let him/her know that they have a right to be safe and to ask for help from a safe adult if any unacceptable behaviors take place in school, at your home or a friend’s home, or on the playground.
- Stay aware of emotional signs of problems, and get professional help for problems that become chronic or appear to be causing undue stress for your child.
- Keep your child safe from comments/questions from other adults. Field those questions out of earshot of your child.
- Be aware of signs of disordered eating, body image distortions and negative reactions of your child to his own body. Reassure your child that everyone will change similarly some day and this is not a bad thing. Again, if negative ideas about Self become chronic, seek help.
- When a child is very young, or the onset of puberty is extremely stress producing, speak to your doctor about available treatment. In addition, make sure a good physical is set up to detect any underlying health issues that need to be addressed.
- Get help for your own stress level. Precocious puberty can be a stress for parents too.