As in past generations, the issues of drugs and alcohol as well as early sexual involvement are issues young people are facing. Today’s young people are also challenged by social media, lack of self-esteem, depression and behaviors such as using drugs and alcohol, eating disorders and early sexual involvement.
Is there a greater risk for these issues if a young person enters puberty at a younger age? That depends on several variables, such as environment, how young puberty begins, maturity, self-esteem and available support system. If a parent has a child who has entered puberty at a younger age, then it becomes imperative that they are on the lookout for any signs that their child is struggling with not only the physical changes, but the emotional ones as well.
If you notice any outward signs such as defiance, lethargy, charge in normal behaviors and habits or change in schoolwork, it’s important to seek help to deal with the issues before they worsen.
Though boys can enter puberty at a younger age, it’s become apparent that girls are experiencing a more challenging time with it. Because female hormones are more susceptible to the outward effects of stress, manifesting in poor eating habits and lower self-esteem, this can translate into an emotional roller coaster ride for both child and parent.
The cascading effect points to behavioral health issues such as:
- Body-image issues
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Poor academic performance
- Internalizing symptoms (depression, anxiety, worry, fear, low self worth etc.)
The important thing to realize is that all of these behaviors can be dealt with and turned around if parents stay on top of how their children are coping with all the changes they’re experiencing.
It’s easy to understand and address some of the obvious physical changes that young people might be experiencing like public hair, growth spurts, sweat and (in girls) breast buds, but in reality the bigger or more challenging changes are happening in their brains, which can have an effect on how successfully puberty and adolescence unfolds.
If the brain plays such an important part, then it only makes sense that healthy family and peer relationships will have a positive effect on how young people weather early-onset puberty.
One critical key: a strong family unit that provides clear rules and boundaries, consistency, clear expectations, warmth, nurturing and presence. It’s also important to help your child self-regulate, instead of their being reactive and over-emotional.
During my Puber-Tea and Guy Talk classes I ask tweens to come up with three healthy alternatives to uncontrolled emotional responses. Some examples of what they say are taking a walk, reading a book, listening to music, hitting a punching bag, screaming into a pillow and writing in a journal. By starting early helping tweens develop tools and options for when the emotional roller coaster takes over, parents can not only mitigate uncontrolled emotions, but more importantly help tweens feel more in control and safe.
One of the physical concerns about young people entering puberty at a younger age is a higher susceptibility to certain diseases such as cancer. Women’s hormones can be extremely sensitive, and there is a possibility that once estrogen kicks in, changes could happen earlier. Researchers seem to indicate that the more “ovulatory cycles” a woman experiences, the greater the potential for certain diseases.
I’ve always taught that genetics supersede hormonal pressures, yet the current research suggests the opposite is true during early onset puberty. Researchers surmise that early-onset puberty can potentially prevent a child from reaching his/her maximum height potential. They might appear to be the tallest in the room, but will actually turn out to be shorter because their opportunity for growth is shortened. Their bones are not given adequate time to grow to their genetically determined height.
Much of the research is new, and it’s important for parents to access as much information as possible to be prepared for whatever way their child goes through puberty. That’s why we start our first two classes (Puber-Tea for girls and Guy Talk for boys) between the ages of 8-10, knowing full well that many kids have already entered puberty and need information sooner than later.
I’ve always felt that our bodies haven’t made huge evolutionary shifts up until now, but due to how society has evolved with the introduction of more chemicals, processed foods and increases in stress, it’s only natural that our genes start to reflect these changes.
Luckily the research is being done and more answers are emerging. Even though I’ve raised several potential challenges that might occur during early onset puberty, it doesn’t mean that your child will experience behavioral and health issues. What it does mean is that it’s important for more research to be done and for parents to become better informed and more proactive when it come to their children’s health and development.
Read Part One in this series, How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls, HERE. Look out for Part Three in this series, and if you’re in Orange County and would like to hear me address The New Puberty live, I’ll be talking at the Tustin Library on Tuesday, February 28. Please CLICK HERE to download a flier with all the details.