Question: My child seems to already be showing signs of puberty even though she's barely entered her tween years. It seems way too early for this. I'm worried. What should I do?
Answer: You're certainly not alone in your concerns. Puberty seems to be occurring increasingly early over the past century, affecting more tweens every year. Precocious puberty is typically defined as the appearance of puberty symptoms (e.g., breast growth, hair growth and/or menarche) before 7 or 8 years of age in girls and before 9 years of age in boys. Given the many negative consequences that have been associated with early puberty, your worries are understandable. Thankfully, though, children are resilient and there are a number of steps you can take to help your tween cope with precocious puberty.
First, contact your child's pediatrician. The doctor may test for physical causes for the early onset of puberty, such as issues with the adrenal glands, ovaries or testicles. Biological causes for early puberty are particularly common in boys, while girls are more likely to experience psychological causes. If your child's doctor identifies a biological cause, it may be treatable with medication.
You should also focus on your child's psychological well-being. Many experts recommend that you help her cope by refraining from making comments about her appearance. This is not to say that you should ignore the physical changes - doing so could actually be harmful and confusing to your tween. Rather, you should place special emphasis on her internal qualities and non-physical achievements during this vulnerable time. In other words, focus on building her self-esteem.
You can also help your tween cope with precocious puberty by starting a dialogue about the changes she's experiencing. Make sure she knows you're available to talk at any time, and aim to be as accessible as possible. This may mean evaluating and altering your own commitments, at least for a while. You might also offer her readings about puberty that are written for children.
Finally, some psychologists believe that stress may play an important role in causing the negative effects of early puberty. Therefore offering resources to help your tween cope with stress may lessen the impact of precocious puberty. If you become concerned that your child is highly stressed and/or not coping well, however, particularly if he or she shows signs of depression or anxiety, consult your school's mental health professional or your pediatrician.
KidsHealth. Precocious Puberty. Accessed on August 27, 2010: http://kidshealth.org/parent/medical/sexual/precocious.html
University of Michigan Health System. Precocious Puberty (Early Puberty). Accessed on August 27, 2010: http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/puberty.htm