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Precocious Puberty



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“Precocious” used to be insulting, not a word you’d want others to use when describing your children. It insinuated a certain “too big for your britches” arrogance in young kids which most adults wanted to stamp out. In recent years, perhaps after Baby Einstein, parents have begun using it as a compliment, as a testimony to their parenting skills. But the term is used in this New York Times article in a way no parent would welcome: precocious puberty.

Elizabeth Weil writes about young girls — six years old and younger — experiencing early puberty, in her article titled “Puberty Before Age 10: A New ‘Normal’?“   She writes:

Now most researchers seem to agree on one thing: Breast budding in girls is starting earlier. The debate has shifted to what this means. Puberty, in girls, involves three events: the growth of breasts, the growth of pubic hair and a first period. Typically the changes unfold in that order, and the process takes about two years. But the data show a confounding pattern. While studies have shown that the average age of breast budding has fallen significantly since the 1970s, the average age of first period, or menarche, has remained fairly constant, dropping to only 12.5 from 12.8 years. Why would puberty be starting earlier yet ending more or less at the same time?

Girls who experience puberty at a young age are at increased risk of a myriad of problems. For one, it could stunt their growth. If the puberty-induced growth spurts start too early, they will also end too early. Plus, there are the obvious emotional complications of dealing with physical maturity before emotional and spiritual maturity.

The article explores why puberty is starting earlier and earlier, but there are no solid answers. One possible explanation is that overweight girls are more likely to enter puberty early than their more healthful counterparts. Another is exposure to particular environmental chemicals which triggers the early onset of puberty. But this is the correlation that jumped out at me:

Family stress can disrupt puberty timing as well. Girls who from an early age grow up in homes without their biological fathers are twice as likely to go into puberty younger as girls who grow up with both parents. Some studies show that the presence of a stepfather in the house also correlates with early puberty. Evidence links maternal depression with developing early. Children adopted from poorer countries who have experienced significant early-childhood stress are also at greater risk for early puberty once they’re ensconced in Western families.

As the mother of a four-year-old girl born in African poverty (who most certainly experienced “significant early-childhood stress”), I found this confounding. Why would biology be so determinative? Now that my husband David is providing a wonderful peaceful home in America, shouldn’t all the traces of her poor beginning be erased?

Recently, I was walking with a friend who has two children adopted from Liberia. One seems to be experiencing puberty around the age of ten.  In my mind, I dismissed it due to the near-impossibility of determining her kids’ ages. It hasn’t been uncommon for Liberia to deliver children documented as four years old, even though they arrive home with a complete set of permanent teeth. Malnutrition’s toll on their already small bodies — and the government’s desire to place kids — sometimes puts “age” in murky waters. (In fact, the Liberian government suspended all adoptions in 2009 because of allegations of mismanagement and corruption.) But this NYT article made me think my friend’s child’s development wasn’t just due to an ambiguous age assessment.

While there are no good explanations as to why this so-called precocious puberty is happening to girls in this country, the article is a sobering reminder. No amount of social engineering, women’s studies classes, or sitcoms that mock and marginalize fathers can erase the simple truth: Intact families are the best way to raise children.

And for those of us in less than ideal situations — through our own wrongdoing or the wrongdoing of others? There are worse things than having an early period. (Starving to death in Africa, for example, comes to mind.) No matter our circumstance, it’s important to look at these problems head on, to prepare ourselves for complexities, and to do all we can to maintain a stable peaceful home for our children.

Families really, really matter . . . in ways that we are only now determining.

Read Elizabeth Weil’s complete article here: Puberty Before Age 10: A New ‘Normal’? 



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