Psychological Factors May Contribute to a Girl's Precocious Puberty

Stress and family dynamics may lead to early puberty in girls

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For girls, precocious puberty (early puberty) is defined as the onset of puberty before 8 years old. Rather than starting at the average age of 10 or 11, some girls have started developing breasts and showing other signs of maturity as early as 5.

Quite often, the exact cause cannot be identified, though biological factors tend to be the primary reasons doctors point to. However, researchers have also found that a number of psychological or psychosocial factors may contribute to a girl experiencing puberty early as well.

Precocious Puberty

Overall, girls today may be experiencing puberty earlier than girls did in the past. It is a phenomenon called the secular trend, which is used to examine decreasing puberty ages since the 1900s. It is an area of study that is of great interest to medical doctors, psychologists, and researchers alike.

If puberty begins too early, though, girls are likely to grow shorter than their peers and face social and emotional problems. For instance, sometimes the changes can be overwhelming for a younger girl if she's not prepared for the transition. It's also common for girls to face stressors caused by their peers if they develop earlier than most of their friends or classmates.

A young girl may be at higher risk for precocious puberty due to a number of factors. On the biological side, doctors often look to things like hormones, genetics, and obesity. For instance, things like meat with a high amount of injected hormones have been blamed for some of the youngest cases.

According to the Mayo Clinic, girls who are overweight or exposed to hormone-containing creams or ointments—including sex creams, medications, and some dietary supplements—are at higher risk. There is also an indication that the brain and pituitary gland of some girls may begin producing and releasing gonadotropin-releasing hormone (Gn-RH) earlier. Additionally, young African-American girls and those with certain medical conditions—including some involving increased production of hormones—are more prone to precocious puberty.

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's Absence

Studies have shown that if a girl doesn't have her biological father living with her, she is likely to reach puberty earlier than girls who have their father present. Some of the findings suggest that the longer dad has been absent, the sooner puberty will begin.

Some researchers believe the presence of a stepfather or mother's boyfriend in the house is even more important to precocious puberty than a biological dad's absence. It is theorized that unrelated males create pheromones—odorless airborne chemicals—that may affect hormonal functioning. These pheromones might cause a girl to develop more quickly.

In other words, it doesn't matter if dad is gone, but rather whether someone has taken his place. This theory has been supported in animal studies, and there is some evidence of it in humans, as well.

Family Conflict

There is also the theory that the more a family fights, the earlier a girl in that family is likely to reach puberty. One study, for example, found a correlation between both parents' dissatisfaction within a marriage—particularly a father's withdrawal—and a girl's early development.

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

Parental Mental Disorders

If a parent—particularly the mother—has a mental disorder, there is some evidence that her daughter is likely to have an 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.

Sources:

Belsky J. Family Experience and Pubertal Development in Evolutionary Perspective. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2011;48(5):425–426. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2011.03.001.

Ellis BJ, Garber J. Psychosocial Antecedents of Variation in Girls' Pubertal Timing: Maternal Depression, Stepfather Presence, and Marital and Family Stress. Child Development. 2003. 71(2): 485-501. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00159.

Mayo Clinic Staff. Precocious Puberty. Mayo Clinic. 2017.

Saxbe DE, Repetti RL. Brief Report: Fathers' and Mothers' Marital Relationship Predicts Daughters' Pubertal Development Two Years Later. Journal of Adolescence. 2009;32(2):415–423. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2008.06.009.

Walvoord EC. The Timing of Puberty: Is It Changing? Does It Matter? Journal of Adolescent Health. 2010. 1-7. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2010.05.018.