Puberty & Our Girls: How Early is Too Soon?

Puberty & Our Girls: How Early is Too Soon?

April 18, 2024

It seems as if everything is getting younger for our girls, right? I love seeing those memes comparing how cool tweens and teens are these days and how very uncool we were at their same age. Well, at least I know I was! In fact, I’ve come to peace with the fact that I will never in my life be as cool as a 14 year old in 2024.

Our girls are “cooler”, younger. They care about what they look like, earlier. For many of our daughters, their behaviour, trends, desires, conversations and “worldly” knowledge is years ahead of what it was when we were young. The things that used to be happening when we were 14 or 15 are now happening at 11 or 12. When it comes to puberty, research shows that over the last 150 years the age at which puberty begins has fallen substantially across many developed countries (Bellis, Downing & Ashton, 2006).  A study by Dr.Marcia Herman-Giddens found that in 1950, the average onset age for puberty in girls was 13.1 years old; in 2020 it was 10.5 years old.

In Australia, girls currently begin puberty at around age 10-11. The timing of puberty for our girls can differ by 4 to 5 years and can range from 8-13 years old (Mensah et. Al., 2013).

How early is considered early when it comes to puberty?

Early puberty or precocious puberty is defined as when (for girls), a rapid growth spurt has occurred before 7 or 8 years of age, breast development or pubic hair has started before 7 or 8 or a girl has started her period before 9-10 years of age. The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (2017) has revealed that 21.1% of girls experience precocious puberty. That’s 1 in 5 of our daughters that will begin developing and experiencing big changes before their peers.

Although scientists are still unable to pinpoint with certainty what causes some girls to begin puberty early, much research has pointed towards puberty onset being influenced by weight and body composition, ethnicity, genetics, environmental chemicals, stress or family situations. For example, a mother’s pubertal timing is thought to have a strong influence on the age of her daughter beginning puberty (Essex, 2007). Altered family structure such as the absence of a father, presence of a stepfather or a single-parent family have all been associated with earlier puberty onset in both girls and boys. To read more on these studies, click here. More often than not, there is no serious underlying medical problem or trigger; it is simply a matter of her brain sending signals to start the process earlier than what is considered inside the normal range. Of course, I am not medically trained so if this post makes you wonder whether your girl could be experiencing precocious puberty then I highly recommend chatting to your trusted GP. Doctors are able to assess physical signs of puberty alongside running blood tests to gain an understanding of hormonal levels and x-rays to determine bone growth rate and can then refer on to a specialist if need be.

Our girls bodies are programmed and designed to go through puberty at a time and pace that is right for them, regardless of whether this has been influenced by a myriad of external factors or whether we think it’s “too early” or not. The overarching message we want our girls to know is that their remarkable bodies are good, they are designed to change and that they can trust their bodies.

“I needed someone to prepare me earlier for the changes I would experience in my body. I needed someone to advocate for me at school and teach me to be proud of my body and what amazing things it was capable of.” K

The reality is that someone in her peer group must be the first to start going through puberty. Regardless of whether she is going through precocious puberty, some of our daughters will experience puberty early through their own lens as they compare their journey to their peers. So whether your daughter is going through precocious puberty or is simply starting to change earlier than her friends, here’s a few things I think we ought to keep in the forefront of our minds.

Going through puberty early can be hard emotionally and socially, especially for girls as they often find they are treated differently and attract unwanted sexual interest due to the early development of breasts and their older appearance. Our early blooming girls are more likely to be teased which can result in them feeling self-conscious and can result in poorer body image, higher rates of depression, anxiety and disordered eating. Our friend Jess Dyson from Redefined Coaching kindly shared her experience from working with girls who have gone through puberty early.

“Puberty can be a wild time. Where we go from our girl body to our woman body. It's all new and unfamiliar. People often notice the changes in our body and make comments and for some this can be detrimental to their body image. So many clients that I see went through early puberty and became more aware of their bodies, they felt vulnerable, they felt different to everyone else, they received comments about their body which were either positive or destructive and all of this caused them feelings which they didn't know how to navigate and built thought patterns towards their bodies which still impact them today.

Since a young age we become aware of what is perceived as good enough through what is modelled to us and what we are exposed to. Body image awareness starts often a long time before an eating disorder. When I was 10 I remember looking at people's bodies saying to myself I want those size boobs, I want a flat tummy, I want this and I don't want that. I was only 10 but yet body image was a huge part of my world. A couple of things which help people navigate the change is helping them build a life outside of body image, placing value on who they are not what they look like, teaching them how to challenge their thoughts instead of going along with them, learning how to deal with emotions and not let them control us or trying to fix them in unhealthy ways, modelling a healthy body image to those around us and being careful on how we talk to our bodies and about other people's bodies. You are so much more than your body and who you are adds so much value to the world.” Jess Dyson – Redefined Coaching

We couldn’t agree more, Jess. Our girls’ worth, dignity and value runs far deeper than the surface of their skin and the shape of their body. For our girls experiencing early changes to their body shape and size, I believe we need to shelter them the best we can from comments from family members and friends about their changing body. But when they come (because inevitably they will), our job is to sit alongside our daughters, reframe these comments with them and place them against the truth of who they are and their purpose.

Their body is designed to change.

They can trust their body.

I am thankful for my body because…

I am “insert non image related truth.”

The least interesting thing about me is the way I look.

This too shall pass. This is just a chapter of my story.

Again, and again, and again.

Puberty is a hectic season for our girls at the best of times, but our girls who are “puberty pioneers” for their peers can often have a harder time than we realise. We asked several women to reflect on what it was like for them to experience an early onset of puberty. Here’s what they had to say:

“I was teased mercilessly at school for getting boobs early and was so alone at school trying to manage ‘surfboards’ on my own in an environment that did not cater for young girls starting their period early. My family didn’t treat me any differently and in fact appeared to have no idea to help me manage apart from ‘hiding’ and being ‘private’ about it.” K

“I remember feeling really isolated as I had no one my age to connect with about the topic for at least 1-2 years. My number one focus and priority during this time was total discretion from the adults who knew and to try and fly completely under the radar at school. I didn’t want anyone to notice or comment on what was happening to my body.” T

“I was 8 years old when my breasts started to develop and were sore. I felt alone and embarrassed. I remember an Aunty pointing out that “she’s got little boobies already” and I was so ashamed of my body. This was a really lonely time for me as none of my friends understood.” L 

“The hardest thing was not knowing what was happening to me and not having a supportive female role model.” K

“I was one of the first girls to go through puberty and growing boobies was the first thing I noticed. It was painful and I remember feeling super pedantic about people noticing. I would try and wear multiple layers to cover up.” T

“I felt overwhelmed. Weirded out. Why me? Sad that I was growing up.” P

“The hardest thing was having no one my age to relate too, which made me feel like I had to hide what was happening. The age I hit puberty was about the same age where I thought my mum had no clue about what she was talking about – everything she said was either wrong or embarrassing. I often wished I had someone or something else to connect with about the topic of puberty, from an educational perspective as well as socially. Somewhere we could compare things and share tips.” T

“It was awful! I was mostly fearful and anxious. I had no idea what was going on and no preparation. I was young and in the early 80’s and it was still such a taboo subject.” K

This is why it is so important that we are getting in early and ensuring that our girls have solid education around puberty changes and how to take care of themselves well. It is our job as their caring adults to ensure that we are pre-empting the information they are going to need for the next phase of their development and delivering it before they need it. Our girls bodies should not be a mystery for them and they should not be in the dark when it comes to the inner workings of their incredible bodies. Our girls need to be well equipped to manage their period even when they are barely mature enough to do so. They need to be exposed to the message that their period is a wonderful symbol of health and wellbeing and that it should not stop them from living their life well and to the full. 

These stories recorded above do not have to be the stories of this future generation of young women. Let’s be honest, there is enough for our girls to worry about and anxiety is at epidemic levels; one of the easiest stresses for us to remove from their lives is that of puberty and periods. This is why we developed our books to perfectly layer the information from 8 years old (or earlier if puberty signs begin) in an age-appropriate, warm manner so that they feel positive, confident and equipped to handle the changes. We are big fans of creating a sense of awe in girls as they come into puberty at the wonderous workings of the female body.

“ I wish I had more information on different products and answers to my big questions like if I could swim on my period and how to do life and continue on as normal while I had my period. I wish I was celebrated at the time so it felt like an uplifting experience and a good step into womanhood, which everyone goes through. I wish it was not so sheltered and shamed so that I felt like I couldn’t take to anyone or ask questions, I felt alone and that I needed to navigate and figure this all out for myself.” M

“I would say to other girls, find a supportive woman to talk to about your questions or worries if you can. It might be your mum, aunt, friends, sister, older sister. Any woman you feel safe and supported by. I would also say your body is growing and developing exactly as it should, on its own timeline. Nobody is the same. You and your body are capable of amazing things. Some days are going to be hard and you may not feel great. On those days be kind to yourself, go to bed early, drink water and eat some chocolate! On other days you’re going to smash it out of the park. Be proud of yourself and what you are capable of!” K 

“Be kind to yourself. Puberty happens to everyone and we all have a different experience. Remember you are not alone and take the opportunity to reach out for help.” P

“It can be the start of a beautiful journey. I would tell her to ask questions, as many as she likes and find a person she feels comfortable with to turn to and get comfort. Journal. Sing. Dance. Find her happy thing.” M

“It’s only a matter of time before you feel less alone, less awkward, and less weird. Soon enough everyone around you will be going through puberty too and hopefully celebrating it. The discomfort, embarrassment and other negative emotions are temporary and you will get through it. If you have a friend that you can trust then open up about what you’re experiencing. They might be going through it too and if not they will be there to support you, laugh with you and listen to you.” T

This is a long one, huh? If you’re still reading then I hope you haven’t come this far without a cup of tea and a bikkie in hand. The comments above echo the need for our girls to feel surrounded by a loving group of women as they go through puberty. When they feel as everything about their physical self and identity is being uprooted, they need the grounding that comes from being embraced and pulled in close by women who deeply and unconditionally care for them. We really are not supposed to do life alone, especially when things get a bit hairy (literally).

One of the best things we can teach our daughters is to always put their focus and energy on the things that they CAN control and to continually let go of the things that they cannot.  Puberty and its timing is out of their control and it's not a bad idea to make a list with your daughter of all the things about puberty that she cannot control. Then shift her focus to things that she can control like taking care of herself, being prepared for her period, asking questions, getting enough sleep, the type of person she wants to be, how she treats others - this is where her energy needs to go!

Oh, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to keep them off social media as much as you can for as long as possible. That’s another story for another day.

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