- Early puberty in girls begins before age 8, and before age 9 in boys.
- Starting puberty before their peers can hurt children’s confidence and self-esteem.
- Early puberty can lead to mental health problems and greater potential of risky behaviors.
Girls usually start puberty between the ages of 8 and 13; for boys it’s ages 9 to 14. When kids experience puberty on this timeline, their minds and bodies have a chance to experience healthy growth and development. But when the body is pushed into puberty before it’s ready, it can have a negative impact on a child’s mental health and emotional maturity.
“Anytime we’re outside the norm or we’re doing things earlier, it takes a toll on our mental health,” notes Mary Alvord, PhD, co-author of “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens: A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That Are Holding You Back.” That mental health toll can include kids’ self-esteem. “So much of growing up in that upper elementary and middle school time is fitting in with your peers,” Dr. Alvord adds.
Mary Alvord, PhD
Anytime we’re outside the norm or we’re doing things earlier, it takes a toll on our mental health.
Because of advanced physical and emotional changes, kids can struggle in other ways.
“Other things to consider [are] timing of these changes and the overall maturity level of the child or adolescent as they adjust to these changes. One should also consider that children are typically in a constant environment of comparison to their peers who may or may not be going through similar changes,” explains Jasmine M. Reese, MD, MPH, FAAP, FSAHM, Director of the Adolescent and Young Adult Specialty Clinic, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
With a range of several years, starting puberty early can be a cause for concern. We take a look at what causes early puberty, how it can impact a child’s mental health, and what steps parents can take if they see their child start to mature early.
The Impact of Early Puberty
When children experience puberty during the normal time frame, physical changes include deepening voices and body development. Internally, their hormones alter the way their brains behave, potentially changing the way certain cells communicate and send signals to other cells. They experience profound growth in all areas during this critical stage of development.
Studies show how critical the brain’s development is during this time. It has a multifaceted impact. Launching into puberty earlier than a child is physically and emotionally prepared for can have unintended consequences.
“Research over the years has suggested that puberty does play an important role in overall mental health. How puberty and the hormone changes that occur affect mental health is complex. There are many aspects to consider including how a young person mentally processes puberty changes such as new secondary sexual characteristics (i.e. breast developments, genital changes, body hair, etc.),” Dr. Reese notes.
Nea Cortez, LCSW
There are unrealistic expectations in regard to how they should respond to stressors or self-manage in stressful situations [with early development]. This can impact the teens’ sense of self.
A 2022 study shows that girls are at greater risk for mental illness and risky behaviors when they start puberty early.
“I can see how early puberty can impact an adolescent’s mental health in regard to emotional maturity. There are some teens who physically mature faster but emotionally are their present age. A 13-year-old can look like a 16-year-old but still emotionally act, behave, and respond as a 13 year [old],” states Nea Cortez, LCSW, Case Therapist II, Central DuPage Hospital, Behavioral Health Services. “There are unrealistic expectations in regard to how they should respond to stressors or self-manage in stressful situations. This can impact the teens’ sense of self,” she adds.
The physical and mental maturation has time to grow and develop during the five stages of puberty, which vary in boys and girls. Although these same behaviors and attitudes can happen when kids have a normal puberty experience, it’s exacerbated when it happens earlier than expected.
Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, can cause puberty to start early. The pituitary gland triggering hormones too early, or a tumor on the adrenal gland, are also potential causes.
If parents see signs of puberty starting early, or have any developmental concerns, they should talk with their child’s pediatrician.
How to Help Your Kids
Knowing the signs of early puberty is the first step in parents helping their children. Red flags include body changes that start too early; for example, developing pubic or underarm hair before age 8 in girls or age 9 in boys. Physically changes that advance very fast can also be a signal that something is wrong. In girls, if pubic hair and breast development are occurring at significantly different times, it’s cause for concern.
A way to help ensure that you aren’t missing any signals is to make sure your child is getting routine checkups.
“Children should have annual visits with their primary care providers that should not only include the routine heart and lung exam with a stethoscope but also include sexual maturity rating (SMR) exam. There are 5 stages of SMR that the doctor should be evaluating including for breast development, testicular enlargement, and pubic hair,” Dr. Reese notes.
Experts say informing children early, even before puberty starts, is beneficial.
“You give your kids multiple resources, [including] the opportunity to talk with you, you talking with them about it, educating them, and [giving them] books and maybe videos,” Dr. Alvord recommends.
A little preparation can go a long way in not only preparing your child mentally for what to expect but helping to avoid embarrassment by being ready for any situation.
“[For] young girls, being prepared with sanitary napkins/pads in their bookbag or school locker can help prevent what could be a very embarrassing or very traumatic event if she were to start her first period while at school. Open communication about emotions and feelings is helpful so that parents can help build a support system for their child early on before behaviors escalate or moods decline,” Dr. Reese concludes.
What This Means For You
Puberty is an ever-changing, sometimes challenging time for a child. Open, honest discussions about what they should expect, and being aware of deviations, can help ensure they continue growing in good health physically, mentally, and emotionally.
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