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 physical 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, no exact cause can 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.

Risk Factors

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

  • 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, 10% of White, and 2% of Asian girls had begun puberty at age 7. 
  • Genetics: Although rare, some genetic mutations can cause the pituitary gland to prematurely release sex hormones, which can lead to early puberty.
  • Exposure to sex hormones: Another theory is that coming into contact with substances that contain hormone-like chemicals—sometimes found in sources such as food, plastics, and personal care products—could increase a child’s risk of precocious puberty.

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

These are not a predictor that it will happen, though some evidence has suggested that they might increase the risk.

Family Conflict

One thing that may influence the timing of puberty in young girls is family conflict. A 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 have been linked to only a difference of a few months in puberty timing. 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.

Biological Father Absence

Girls who grow up in households without a biological father are more 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 it might be a sign of more stress and family conflict in the home, or it may even affect sleep patterns and increase exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals.

Parent's Mental Illness

If a parent—particularly the mother—has a mental illness, there is some evidence that her daughter may 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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