7 Things You Thought Wrong About Puberty

7 Things You Thought Wrong About Puberty

Puberty is starting earlier and earlier in girls, according to authors of a new book. But why? (Photo by Getty Images)

“What happens when a girl has the brain of an 8-year old and the body of a 13-year old?”

Louise Greenspan, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist at Kaiser Permanente, and Julianna Deardorff, PhD, an adolescent psychologist at UC Berkeley, set out to find the answer to this question in their new book, “The New Puberty.”

(Photo courtesy of Greenspan and Deardorff)

Greenspan and Deardorff have been studying more than 400 girls in the San Francisco Bay-area over the past decade, observing a significant rise in early-onset puberty. Today, 10 percent of American girls will have started puberty before the age of 8.

Yahoo Health talked to the authors to learn the truth about common myths surrounding puberty, based on the findings described in their new book: 

Myth: Puberty starts when you get your first period

Reality: “People think that ‘puberty’ means getting your first period,” says Greenspan, but “that is actually an event late in the process of pubertal development. The first changes are breast development and the appearance of pubic hair.”

Myth: If your pubescent daughter seems “intense” or “emotional,” hormones are to blame

Reality: Context is key. Hormones don’t “cause” emotions, but rather augment any issues that are already at play for any individual girl. Deardorff says that parents can help support their daughters during this time by “providing consistency, by managing their own emotions when daughters are struggling with theirs, and by teaching their daughters to regulate and express their feelings appropriately during this time of rapid change.” 

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Myth: Puberty education is something that should be taught starting in middle school

Reality: As early as second grade, some girls may start to have pubertal development,” Greenspan says, “but school systems should realize it’s not only middle school teachers who need to be aware of pubertal changes their students may be going through.” In fact, Greenspan says kids should be educated about physical changes that may be happening starting at around fourth grade. “If puberty education is presented as part of the science or health curriculum, gender shouldn’t matter when teaching the facts,” she says.

Myth: Environmental factors have the biggest impact on when a girl begins puberty

Reality: In their book, Deardorff and Greenspan delve into the topic of “infant insecurity” — correlating the presence of parents and the amount of affection they show to a child in his or her first months, with the child’s onset of puberty. Fortunately, there are things parents can do to help prevent their children from developing infant insecurity. “In the early years, the goal is to be appropriately responsive to basic needs, including the need for warmth, comfort, and physical closeness,” Deardorff says. “As the child develops, parents need to maintain emotional responsiveness and stay involved in the growing child’s life. Most importantly, parents’ responses to their children need to be safe, consistent and predictable.” These aspects of parenting are key to a developing child’s perceptions of safety in the world.

Myth: Fat is the biggest culprit in childhood obesity, a predictive factor of early puberty

Reality: “We think fat isn’t a culprit so much as sugar,” says Greenspan. Therefore, it’s important to help kids avoid hidden sources of sugar, whether that means modeling healthy eating behaviors as parents, or keeping sugary food sources out of the home. “Don’t keep sodas and chips at home,” Greenspan advises. “That way, these foods become a treat to be eaten occasionally, when outside the home.”

Related: 8 Healthy Meal Rituals of Lean Families 

Myth: Soy is unsafe for girls and women, causing hormonal problems later in life

Reality: Soy has phytoestrogens — estrogen-like compounds — so people may fear that they mimic estrogen in a bad way in the body. “But various research data show us that early exposure to soy containing foods may actually have a protective effect on a whole range of health outcomes,” Greenspan says. “So we think that whole soy foods are probably safe.” Unprocessed soy is better than processed soy, she says. 

Myth: All natural personal care products are safe and all chemical products are dangerous

Reality: Lavender and tea tree essential oils are endocrine disruptors that have been linked to early puberty, the authors say. “We think it is exposure to the pure oils that leads to the highest doses. So low levels in personal care products are probably safe, but we don’t know for sure,” says Greenspan.

With regard to phthalates, a kind of chemical plasticizer often added to cosmetics for viscosity also identified as an endocrine disruptor, Greenspan adds that at this time, it’s still unknown how much exposure makes an impact on developing girls. However, “the timing may be as important as the dose,” she says. In that vein, it’s “never too late” for parents to cut out products containing these substances from their child’s personal care routine, she says.

And while pregnant women already have a lot to worry about, it’s best to try to “minimize exposure to toxins, in general,” to decrease the fetus’s exposure in-utero, Greenspan adds. 

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