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From surging hormones and acne to body hair and body odor,
puberty can be a rocky transition for any kid. But girls and boys
who start physically developing sooner than their peers face
particular social and emotional challenges, researchers find.

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“Puberty is a pivotal time in kids’ lives, and early
maturing boys and girls may be more likely to struggle
psychologically,” says Jane Mendle, a
psychologist and associate professor at Cornell University.

A
2018 study
conducted by Mendle and her team found that girls
who entered puberty significantly earlier than their peers were at
higher risk for mental health concerns. They’re more likely to
become depressed during adolescence, the study finds, and this
distress can persist into adulthood.

“For some girls, puberty can throw them off course, and the
emotional stress can linger,” Mendle says, “even after the
challenges of puberty wane.”

While the age-range for puberty varies, says
Jennifer Dietrich
, a pediatric gynecologist at Texas
Children’s Hospital, the average age of menses is 12.3 years old.
However, about
15%
of females start puberty much sooner — by the age of
7.

Research from the
American Academy of Pediatrics
suggests
boys are also developing earlier,
by age 10, which is six
months to one year sooner than previous generations.

Pediatricians haven’t identified a lone cause for this shift,
but Louise Greenspan, a pediatric endocrinologist at Kaiser
Permanente in San Francisco, says childhood obesity, environmental
chemical-contributors, and the effects of chronic stress — a
hormonal response to neglect or abuse in the family, for example
— may all play a role.

At a crucial time when kids long to fit in, puberty can make
them stand out. And when breast buds and body hair sprout during
elementary school, children often feel exposed. Unable to hide
their sexual development from others, they may feel ashamed or
embarrassed.

Cosette Taillac, a psychotherapist at Kaiser Permanente in
Oakland, Calif., recalls a particular client, a 9-year-old girl,
who was started to feel self-conscious playing soccer because her
body was developing.

When the little girl no longer wanted to participate in sports
— something she had always loved — her parents sought
Taillac’s help.

“She didn’t want to dress in front of her teammates,” says
Taillac.

Studies
show girls who physically mature early, may be more likely than
boys to ruminate about these uneasy feelings. According to researchers,
this can prolong the emotional distress, which may increase their
risk of depression and anxiety.

Still, though girls are more likely to internalize the stress
they feel, boys aren’t unscathed, says Mendle.

In research by
Mendle and her colleagues, early maturing boys were more likely
than others to feel socially isolated and to face conflict with
friends and classmates. “This may increase their risk of
depression,” she says,”but we’re uncertain if these effects
last into adulthood.”

Because information about early development tends to focus on
girls, parents are often perplexed when their sons start puberty
early, says Fran Walfish, a child and adolescent psychotherapist in
Beverly Hills, Calif.

Their first clue, she says, may come when a tween boy refuses to
shower or wear deodorant.

Helping kids navigate these new social and emotional hurdles can
be tricky, especially since puberty spans several years. But
don’t be afraid to reach out — or to start the conversation
early.

Greenspan suggests talking to children about sexual development
by the age of 6 or 7. “Starting the conversation when kids are
young, and keeping lines of communication open can make the
transition less scary,” she says.

At times, parents may also need to advocate for their children.
“My client’s parents worked with the soccer coach to create
more privacy for her when dressing for team events,” says
Taillac. The simple adjustment helped the girl feel safe and more
confident.

Of course, not all kids are eager for a parent’s help; some
shy away from even talking about their newfound struggles. That’s
sometimes a sign they’re confused or overwhelmed, child
psychologists say.

“It’s important for parents to realize that puberty triggers
identity questions like ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where do I fit
in?’ for boys and girls,” Walfish says.

Taillac says
reading books together
can help. “Books provide a common
language to discuss what’s going on, which can open up
conversations between parents and children,” she says.

For elementary school girls,
“The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls,”
by Valorie Schaefer
can be a helpful book. Reading “The Tween Book: A
Growing Up Guide for the Changing You,” by Wendy Moss and Donald
Moses
can be informative for boys and girls, even as they reach
the teen years.

Seeing your child mature early can also worry a parent. If you
find yourself unsure of how to intervene, psychologists say,
remember that distraught kids often want the same thing we all seek
when we’re upset — a generous dose of empathy.

Luckily, compassion doesn’t require parents to have all the
answers. Puberty calls for the same good parenting skills as any
other age: being emotionally available to kids through their
developmental milestones, witnessing their growing pains, and
providing comfort when life throws them curveballs.

That advice is simple; the effects powerful. Scientific
evidence
shows this kind of parental support helps foster
emotional resilience, and that bolsters kids’ health and
relationships for years to come.

Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You
can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit
https://www.npr.org.

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