Are our kids growing up too fast
With puberty arriving ever earlier, childhood is increasingly in danger
IF PUBERTY isn't confusing enough, consider the fact that children are reaching the developmental stage earlier than ever before.
Puberty has long been considered the transition to adolescence and maturity, but as the age of puberty decreases steadily — particularly in girls — that assumption is slowly dying out.
Study after study is revealing that children are reaching the developmental milestone at ages when they are neither emotionally nor mentally prepared. Previous generations received their introduction to puberty via Judy Blume books such as Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. Young girls today may not have even developed the required literacy skills to take on her coming-of-age-novels by the time they reach puberty.
Compared to a decade ago, twice as many white girls in the US reach puberty aged seven, according to a recent study. Just over 10pc of white seven-year-olds were showing breast development, compared to 5pc in a 1997 study. Previous studies had identified early puberty mainly in black girls.
"To find the girls are starting breast development earlier and earlier is extremely concerning," said Marcia Herman-Giddens, the scientist who led the 1997 study. "To have that much change in such a short time, it has to be the environment."
Notably, the proportion of black eight-year-olds entering puberty has dropped from 48pc in 1997 to 43pc today, which could suggest that the lowering of the age of puberty is levelling off for black girls but continuing to decrease for white girls.
Similar findings have been reported in Europe. A study published in 2009 found that breast development in Denmark is beginning in girls at an average age of nine years and 10 months, a year earlier than the last study in 1991.
Karen [not her real name] was shocked when her daughter, Julie [not her real name], now 11, showed breast development at age nine. "She had her first bra at nine which was a 28AA. At 10 she was in a 30AA."
"She asked me if she could shave her legs. I said 'No', but when she is 13 she can start using a depilatory cream. I also got her a book called What's Happening To Me?, and she read it cover to cover. Her friends read it when they were over for sleepovers. I've since told one of the girl's parents about it, and they bought it, too."
Many brands and clothing chains have come under fire recently for sexualising young girls by offering them adult products. Scientific findings considered, they are simply supplying demand.
There was a public outcry when it was revealed that UK high street giant, Asda, was selling a "padded" bra for children. Although the bras were removed from the rails, a spokesperson denied the claims. "In any event, it wasn't padded. It contained a thin modesty and smoothing layer that, through extensive research, teenagers buying their first bra tell us they like it, as it avoids the embarrassment of having their nipples showing under the school shirts."
Likewise, depilatory brand, Nair, was denounced for launching new product, Nair Pretty, aimed towards 10- to 15-year-olds, or "first-time hair removers". The company is simply offering a less threatening product to young girls for whom early puberty has caused their body hair to coarsen and darken.
Although scientists are confounded by the phenomenon, theories abound. Obesity is the prime suspect. A link between the elevation of body weight and the onset of puberty has been discovered in the US.
Obese girls, defined as at least 22 pounds overweight, had an 80pc chance of developing breasts before their ninth birthday and starting menstruation before age 12. It is thought that hormones released by the fat cells can trigger the onset.
This particular theory doesn't bode well for Irish girls. A 2004 report by the International Obesity Taskforce reported that Irish girls were the second fattest in the world.
"I think that something else may be going on, and I think we simply don't have the answers right now -- nobody has come up with a solid study for BPA or phthalates."
He's referring to chemicals that mimic the female hormone oestrogen, which some quarters consider to be the culprit. BPA or Bisphenol A, is used in plastics and tins that are used as soft-drink containers. Recent mothers will know this abbreviation well, as many manufacturers of children's bottles and feeding wear advertise their products as BPA-free. Phthalates are added as a softener to shampoos and cosmetics.
However, definitive evidence has yet to be found. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently announced it had not found any "convincing evidence of neurobehavioural toxicity of BPA". Likewise, the links to phthalates are still tenuous.
Other studies have pointed the finger at high-meat diets, excessive TV watching and even absent fathers.
What is more concrete is the psychological and sociological effects early onset puberty causes. It has been linked to anxiety, depression and abnormal eating behaviours in young girls.
Puberty is distressing at any age, but more so for the girl who believes that she is developing before her peers or is receiving unwanted attention from the opposite sex.
"For 'early maturers' the psychological highs and lows of adolescence will inadvertently present themselves earlier," says Dublin-based psychologist, Joanne Cooper.
"However, in addition to this, there are some complex effects associated with early maturation. For boys, this is highly valued within the social group. Growth spurts favour strength and sporting achievement, and are associated with being perceived as mature or popular.
"For girls, however, the picture is more complex. Early maturing girls tend to be drawn to friendships and relationships with older age-groups, with whom they feel they have more in common.
Studies have shown that sometimes this can be associated with rule breaking and potentially can have a negative effect on education. In most cases, however, these negative effects generally return to normal by age 25."
The prepubescent years are considered a critical period for acquiring a new language or mastering a musical instrument. The brain is "like a sponge", as many parents and teachers put it. However, early onset puberty curtails this vital phase of early learning prematurely. Again, girls are most affected.
The most worrying finding is that women who reach puberty earlier have a higher risk of developing breast cancer. Puberty and breast cancer
The big question is when to broach the subject with your child. In some countries, sex education in schools still trails behind puberty and parents have had to take to the task themselves.
Social, Personal and Health Education has been part of the national curriculum in all primary schools in Ireland since September 2003 and it is delivered to children at all levels from infants upwards. Karen's daughter was in fourth class when puberty was discussed.
However, while it is important to educate children about puberty earlier, we shouldn't assume their cognitive functions are developing in line with their bodies. The thinking is that this is not an evolutionary process, but a human interference. It really is too much, too young.
Dr Joanne Cooper is a psychologist specialising in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Further information available at www.rewindcounselling.ie