As if raising kids in our fast-paced, ever-changing society weren't already tough enough, now it appears that children are changing so fast that we now have to rewrite all the medical textbooks to keep up with them. It has been known for some time that girls in America are entering puberty (as measured by the growth of pubic hair, development of breasts, and the onset of menstruation) a year or two earlier than the textbooks say they should. A small number (15% of Caucasian girls, 23% of African-American girls) now see the onset of puberty as early as age 7.
Now there is a study that indicates that the same thing is happening to boys. Marcia Herman-Giddens, one of the researchers who first documented early puberty in girls in 1997, has a new study about to be published in the journal Pediatrics. She asked 212 practitioners across America to record information on over 4,100 boys who they were providing medical care to. In boys, the onset of puberty is measured by the growth of pubic hair, and enlargement of the testes. The results of the study indicate that boys are also entering puberty much earlier than they used to, on average six months to two years earlier than the textbooks say is expected. In the study, researchers found that the onset of puberty in boys was affected by their ethnic background. African-American boys tended to start puberty first, around the age of 9 years old, while Hispanic and Non-Hispanic Caucasian boys tended to start puberty around the age of 10.
What does all of this mean?
No one has any definitive answers as to the why of all this. When girls began entering puberty earlier, some theorized that increased amounts of estrogen in the environment might have been a factor. But estrogen would actually serve to delay puberty in boys, so that's probably not the answer. Some have speculated that high rates of obesity in boys may be contributing to the earlier onset of puberty, but that too is unproven. What researchers are sure of is that the phenomenon is happening, and that it will have an impact on the children, on their parents, and on the teachers and doctors who work with them.
Clearly, a number of textbooks for doctors and guidelines for parents need to be updated with this new information, to provide them with accurate information about when they need to discuss with kids the changes they're going through. Dr. Herman-Giddens says, "They need to talk to their boys earlier than they would have thought about puberty and sexual development and all of those related issues."
Early onset of puberty doesn't mean early onset of adulthood
Possibly more important, even though boys are developing earlier, that doesn't mean that they're becoming socially and psychologically mature any earlier. It is more likely that there will be a bigger gap between their physical maturation and their emotional and social maturation than ever. Research following up on the 2007 study on earlier onset of puberty in girls revealed a number of potential problems that could arise from this. Girls who have matured physically but not yet emotionally and psychologically can become obsessed with their appearance and as a result develop eating disorders and become depressed. Now we have to be aware that the same thing may be happening to boys. They too may begin to feel pressured to become sexually active and to have romantic relationships before they are ready for them.
And while all of this will probably be challenging for the kids, this new information can be of use to parents, reminding them that they need to become more aware of the changes their children are going through and the increased pressures they may be facing. The more we know about such pressures, the better we can help our kids deal with them.