As I mentioned in the first post in this series, the three culprits behind early onset puberty identified by Louise Greenspan, MD, and Julianna Deardorff, Ph.D. in The New Puberty are: obesity, the environment and stress.
Armed with this new knowledge, parents can become more strategic about how to address issues that might impact their child’s health.
There seems to be a strong link between obesity and early onset puberty. In the past 10 years, much research has been done to support this theory, the critical –fat– theory. Basically, when referring to pre-pubescent girls’ bodies, researchers feel that the fat tissue, not just poundage or body mass, is what’s affecting hormonal outcomes. A loop is created when the fat tissue releases a hormone called leptin. Leptin may contribute to early puberty, which seems to cause higher estrogen levels, which lead to the buildup of more fat tissues… which release leptin. Leptin – estrogen – fat – leptin – repeat…
So how can parents prevent/address obesity?
- Instill healthy eating habits early
- Engage children in shopping and cooking at an early age
- Restrict/manage/monitor/reduce the intake sugar and simple carbohydrates
- Read labels and discuss choices they inspire
- Watch language when discussing parents’ & others’ eating issues/weight/appearance
- Discuss media depictions of body image, weight and eating norms
- Prioritize and encourage healthy physical exercise and creative outlets
- Get informed (we address these ideas in our Puber-Tea, Guy Talk & Rites of Passage courses)
- Get help if concerned.
Due to current research, we are more aware that potentially harmful chemicals have been introduced into the environment. They have been used as pesticides and additives in our products in order to increase shelf live. Through research and media awareness, we’re becoming more sensitive to the potential risks, not only to our environment, but to our bodies as well.
In the The New Puberty, Greenspan and Deardorff expand on the term, “environment.” We usually think of the environment as meaning earth, air, water and the like. In a much broader sense, it also encompasses location of the family home – whether it’s in the country, suburbs or city, if the neighborhood safe, if it allows for playing outside, etc.
When addressing the impact of these factors on children’s bodies, we need to consider their small body mass and body metabolism. Where an adult body is better able to handle the onslaught of chemicals, that may not be true for children. Brenda Eskenazi, PhD, who is a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, says that children’s bodies haven’t developed enough to produce enzymes that can neutralize or make these chemicals less toxic. This research is still fairly new but important enough to stay aware of.
The good news is that due to regulations, this generation of kids is growing up in a much cleaner environment. That being said, we still have a great deal of work to do to clean up the environment, and currently our technology is too primitive to do an adequate job. (For more information and to be kept up-to-date on current research the Environmental Working Group is a great resource for information for environmentally sound choices.)
So how can parents prevent/address environmental factors?
- Become wise consumers and read the labels on the products that go on, and into your child
- Decrease the amount of refined foods and sugar
- Increase intake of organic (non-pesticide) and/or locally grown produce (visit your local Farmers Market)
- Sunscreen is good, but so is a little bit of full sun once a day (we all need Vitamin D)
- Stay away from plastic water bottles, which aren’t good for us or the environment (We touch on some of these topics during Puber-Tea, Guy Talk & Rites of Passage)
- Get help if concerned.
Most adults would say that if they could only decrease the stress in their lives then they’d feel better, life would be easier, they’d be more successful, they’d be able to deal with life’s challenges, etc. Would it surprise you to learn that today’s kids are often just as stressed as adults?
How does stress impact children, especially when it comes to puberty? Researchers are finding that when stress is present in a young child’s life (physical, sexual or emotional abuse; poverty; media; divorce; academic pressure; peer pressure; etc.), it can have an effect biochemically on their bodies, thereby accelerating hormonal responses related to puberty.
Since every child handles stress in his/her own way, Tom Boyce, MD, and Bruce Ellis use the analogy that there might be an “orchid” and “dandelion” phenomenon at work. This means that some kids are more resilient regardless of what stressors they face. “Dandelions” seem to be able to weather any storm – stress doesn’t have the same impact on hormones, where as “orchids,” which are less resilient, might be more susceptible to an accelerated hormonal response.
One of the most important things a parent can do is understand their child’s response to stress in general. Do you have an “orchid” or a “dandelion”? Most parents have a pretty good insight into how their child deals with stressful situations such as peer groups, school and social media.
The bottom line is that nature and nurture both play very important parts as to when a child actually enters puberty.
So how can parents prevent/address childhood stress?
- Provide a safe, loving, supportive environment
- Give children consistent rules and boundaries
- Make family time for meals and play (game nights, etc.)
- Provide and encourage healthy outlets for stress like sports and creativity
- Balance less media and external stimulation with more down time
- Maintain a healthy diet, featuring lots of water
- Make sure kids get at least 10 hours of sleep every night
- Put down your electronic devices, get eye-to-eye with your child and really listen to what they have to say
- Get informed. (These topics are addressed in many of our classes: Beyond the Birds & Bees, Inside the Tween/Teen Brain, Rites of Passage, and more.)
If your daughter or son falls into the early puberty category, then not only do they need all of the prevention methods I’ve mentioned, they also need knowledge of what their bodies will be experiencing earlier rather than later– so you’ll need to be informed about the physical and emotional changes they will experience and how to convey that information to your child. Don’t think your child is too young to be informed; don’t wait until they are actually experiencing changes, as they will not be adequately prepared. And if you need support in deciding what to say and when to say it, that’s literally what we’re here for.
I know this all might seem daunting in our busy, frenetic lives; nevertheless, the research doesn’t lie. Hopefully, this information is a wake-up call to find a way to simplify, not only your children’s lives, but yours as well—and the importance of getting it right when they’re little is evident as they grow up. Greenspan and Deardorff suggest that in many cases there is a cascading effect from early onset puberty, which then impacts adulthood. This makes perfect sense to me, not only as an educator but as someone who experienced this very situation as a child. I was on the heavier side, and I started to mature very young. I had my first period while at Girls Scout Camp on Catalina Island when I was 10 years old. Now I realize that many of the issues I’ve faced throughout my life were likely associated with starting puberty so young.
So, take a moment to digest the information and find ways daily to insure that your child has every opportunity to have a healthy puberty experience. The puberty journey sets the stage for the rest of their adult life; start now to insure a positive outcome.