The Negative Impact of Early Puberty in Girls

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Puberty can be a tough transition for any child, but some children find it more difficult than others. In particular, children who begin puberty younger than their peers may experience even more challenges than average. Although it's relatively unusual, some kids start puberty at a very young age, which for girls means before age 8.

This condition is called precocious puberty. Here's what parents should know if a child begins puberty at a very young age.

What Is Precocious Puberty?

Typically, girls begin the process of puberty sometime between the ages of 8 and 13. The average American girl gets their period at age 12. Other puberty signs usually begin by around age 10 or 11. These are called secondary sex characteristics and include breast buds and pubic hair. Precocious puberty, which is also known as early-onset puberty, occurs when a girl enters puberty before age 8.

Research shows that in recent decades, puberty is starting a bit earlier for many girls. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in many historically disadvantaged groups, such as those in Black and Hispanic communities and those in families with a lower income level. Higher stress levels, being overweight, exposure to environmental hazards like toxic chemicals may also contribute to the early onset of puberty.

Potential Negative Impact

The potential negative impacts of early puberty in girls have been well documented. Possible adverse consequences include emotional and social issues, such as stress, self-consciousness, poor self-esteem, being bullied, and early sexual activity. Physical issues may include short stature and an increased risk of breast cancer later in life.

However, parents of kids going through precocious puberty can help their child learn to cope with—or avoid—these potential challenges by better understanding why they occur and how to manage them. Below are the three most commonly discussed hypotheses for why precocious puberty can have a negative effect on young girls.

Too Much Too Soon

Some psychologists believe that child development must occur in a certain order in order and timeline to be optimal. For instance, the theory is that children need to experience certain social, cognitive, and emotional milestones before they are ready to endure the rigors of being a tween and teen. If puberty occurs too early, they may still be completing some of the necessary psychological development of childhood when those changes arrive.

As a result, early-maturing girls may become overwhelmed by the stressors of adolescence. The worry is that they are not ready to cope emotionally with experiencing the many changes that accompany puberty. There is some research evidence in support of this explanation, which is called the "stage termination hypothesis."

In particular, studies show that early-maturing children do seem to be more susceptible to stress than their typically developing peers.

Feeling Different Than Peers

Feeling different from peers for any reason is a constant challenge for kids, tweens, and teens. So, it's no wonder that girls going through puberty sooner than their peers will likely compare themselves to others and feel like the odd one out.

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.

However, note that this experience of "deviance" is likely to occur due to any number of factors, with the timing of puberty just being one more way a child can potentially feel out of place.

Experiencing Too Many Transitions at Once

Finally, some psychologists believe that the stress of simultaneous transitions best explains the possible negative impacts 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 monumental transitions, such as the transition from elementary to middle school, then the child may experience greater stress than their peers. There are some research findings to support this hypothesis.

Why These Hypotheses Matter

All in all, it is currently unclear exactly why premature puberty tends to have a negative impact on girls. With further research, scientists may pinpoint which of these hypotheses—or a combination of them—provides the best explanation. When they do, we will hopefully also learn more about how best to prevent and treat the consequences of early puberty.

It's important to note that different kids will experience these impacts in their own unique ways. Additionally, simply being aware of potential issues your child may face if they experience precocious puberty may help to mitigate any challenges that come up. As a parent or caregiver, you can be on the lookout for any socio-emotional concerns and also be there to provide extra reassurance and support.

A Word From Verywell

If your child is going through precocious puberty, it's important to communicate any problems your child encounters with a pediatric healthcare provider who will be able to help you understand how to best help your child. Most importantly, be there to listen if your child needs to open up about any concerns they have about puberty or if they are having trouble coping with their changing mind and body.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rebecca Fraser-Thill
Rebecca Fraser-Thill holds a Master's Degree in developmental psychology and writes about child development and tween parenting.