The Negative Impact of Early Puberty in Girls

Learn why precocious puberty can cause problems for tweens

Stressed teenage girl with laptop computer.
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Puberty is a tough transition for any tween, but some children find it more difficult than others. Children who begin puberty younger than their peers have even more challenges to face. Precocious puberty, or early puberty, is becoming more and more common, here's what parents should know if a child begins puberty at a very young age.

The Negative Impact

The negative impact of early puberty in girls has been well documented, and parents of tweens going through precocious puberty need all the information they can get in order to better help their child and even avoid potential challenges. Here are the three most commonly discussed hypotheses for why precocious puberty has a negative effect on tween girls.

Too Much Too Soon

Some psychologists believe that development must occur in a certain order in order to be optimal. For instance, children must experience certain social, cognitive and emotional milestones before they are ready to endure the rigors of adolescence. If puberty occurs too early, they may still be completing some of the necessary psychological development of childhood when puberty arrives. As a result, early-maturing girls may become overwhelmed by the stressors of adolescence and the many changes that accompany puberty. As a result, early puberty in girls has a negative impact. There is some research evidence in support of this explanation, which is called the "stage termination hypothesis". In particular, early-maturing tweens do seem to be more susceptible to stress than their normally developing peers.

Feeling Different Than Peers

Feeling different from peers is a constant challenge for tweens and teens and it's no wonder that girls going through puberty sooner than her peers will likely compare herself to others. This explanation, called the "deviance hypothesis", contends that any departure from the average developmental timeline is stressful. In other words, children and tweens fare best when they experience developmental milestones around the same time as most of their peers. In support of this theory, it has been found that both early-maturing and late-maturing adolescents are more distressed than "on-time" adolescents.

Experiencing Too Many Transitions at Once

Finally, some psychologists believe that the stress of simultaneous transitions best explains the negative impact of early puberty in girls. Supporters of the "multiple transition hypothesis" contend that tweens do best when they only have to handle one or two major life transitions at any given time. If puberty arrives so early that it coincides with other transitions - such as the transition from elementary to middle school - then the tween may experience greater stress than his or her peers. There is some research support for this hypothesis. For instance, boys who mature around the start of junior high have been found to be more distressed than those who experience puberty slightly later. 

Why These Hypotheses Matter

All in all, it is currently unclear exactly why premature puberty has such a negative impact on tweens, and create so many challenges for families. With further research, scientists may pinpoint which of these hypotheses - or combination of them - provides the best explanation. When they do, we will hopefully also learn how best to combat the disturbing consequences of early puberty. This is especially important as early puberty becomes increasingly common.

Note: If your child is going through precocious puberty it's important to communicate any problems your child encounters with her pediatrician. Your child's doctor will be able to help you understand how to best support your tween. Communicate challenges and concerns with your child's doctor, and be there to listen when your tween needs to open up about any challenges she doesn't understand.

This article was updated on July 9, 2016, by Jennifer O'Donnell.​

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