Psychological Risk Factors for Precocious Puberty in Girls

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For girls, precocious puberty (early puberty) is defined as the onset of puberty before age 8. Rather than starting at the average age of 10 or 11, girls with precocious puberty start developing breasts and showing other signs of maturity as early as 6-years-old.

Apart from cutting into a girl's childhood, precocious puberty is linked to a host of negative health consequences, including depression, substance abuse, heart disease, breast cancer, and diabetes. Because of these implications, precocious puberty has been of great interest to medical doctors, psychologists, and researchers alike. 

Quite often, the exact cause cannot be identified. Though some biological factors have been linked to early puberty, researchers have also found a number of psychological or psychosocial factors that may contribute to a girl experiencing puberty early as well.

Risk Factors

A young girl may be at higher risk for precocious puberty due to a number of factors.

  • Exposure to sex hormones: Coming into contact with substances that contain hormones, can increase your child’s risk of developing precocious puberty.
  • Genetics: Although rare, some genetic mutations can cause the pituitary gland to prematurely release sex hormones which can lead to early puberty.
  • Obesity: Just as undernutrition can delay puberty, overnutrition can speed its onset. Studies show that girls who are overweight undergo puberty at an earlier age than other girls.
  • Race: Precocious puberty appears to affect children of some races more than others. A 2010 study published in Pediatrics found that among 1,200 American girls, about 23% of African-American, 15% of Hispanic, and 10% of Caucasian, and 2% of Asian girls had begun puberty at age 7. 

Adding to these possible medical reasons, some studies have pointed to psychological stressors and family influence that may induce puberty at a younger than normal age. 

These are not a predictor that it will happen, though some evidence has shown that it can increase the risk.

Biological Father Absence

Girls who grow up in households without a biological father are likely to reach puberty sooner than those who live with their biological father. Specifically, girls in father-absent homes are about twice as likely to experience puberty prior to age 12.

It's not clear why an absent father should trigger earlier puberty. One theory is that girls without biological fathers in the home are around more unrelated adult males, such as stepfathers. These unrelated males give off pheromones that may affect a girl's hormonal functioning, causing them to develop quicker.

Family Conflict

Another thing that can influence the timing of puberty in young girls is family conflict. One study, for example, found that young girls who came from families that were less supportive and had more marital conflict tended to hit puberty earlier than their counterparts in more supportive family environments.

Childhood experiences like fights between divorcing parents account for just a few months difference. Still, the idea that such experiences should make any difference at all is an interesting one.

Although researchers are not quite sure why this occurs, it's clear that prolonged stress of any kind—physical, social, or psychological—seems to speed up girls' maturation.

The conflict between parental figures (whether married or not), dysfunction in the family as a whole, and less warmth in a family have all been found to be related to precocious puberty in girls.

Parent Mental Illness

If a parent—particularly the mother—has a mental disorder, there is some evidence that her daughter is likely to have earlier puberty than her peers who have a mentally healthy mom.

Why might the mental health status of a parent matter? Like family conflict, having a parent with a mental disorder can be a source of intense, chronic stress. If stress causes faster maturation, it follows that parental mental health could indeed affect the timing of puberty in a child.

A Word From Verywell

Though you may think that early puberty is just a biological change, it can have negative consequences on a young girl's social and emotional health. If your daughter is experiencing this, it's a good idea to seek professional help. Her medical doctor is a good place to begin finding the support she needs to ease the transition and address any potential issues.

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