Early Puberty in Girls

Question: What are the implications of early versus late sexual development for girls? Is one more beneficial than the other?

Answer: You've asked a very important question. The early onset of puberty presents children and their parents with predictable challenges. Since girls typically develop earlier than boys, those who mature first among female contemporaries are miles ahead of everyone else. This can produce serious problems, because it isn't socially advantageous for nine- or ten-year-old girls to be boy crazy, have monthly periods, and develop breasts when their friends are still thinking and acting like children. A precocious girl may also lack the emotional maturity to handle the attention she garners from boys. She is at greater risk of being sexually active, contracting a sexually transmitted disease, and experiencing an early pregnancy. We received a letter recently from a writer who said simply, "I am a twelve-year-old girl and I am pregnant." How tragic.

There are additional dangers for early maturing girls: they are more likely to be aggressive, socially withdrawn, and moody, and they experience depression at a higher rate. They also have more problems in school and are more likely to smoke, use alcohol, and do drugs. They are also more prone to breast cancer as adults.9 So in answer to your question, girls typically do better when they experience menarche at about the same time as their girlfriends, or perhaps even shortly thereafter.

This much is certain: girls who experience menarche when they are younger than their peers need close supervision, careful guidance, constant reassurance, good medical care, good nutrition, and an abundance of love. Don't we all!

Question: What can parents do to prevent early puberty from occurring?

Answer: The answer may be nothing, although endocrinologists and other physicians can give a child hormone injections to slow down very early development. Most doctors are reluctant to do that, however, unless there are concerns about growth.10 Either way, it is wise to implement a three-part strategy if possible: (1) try to keep the stress level of your family at a minimum while powerful hormones are bombarding your daughter's brain; (2) stave off adolescent attitudes and activities until sexual maturity makes its grand entrance; (3) and most important, develop and maintain a warm and caring relationship between dad and daughter. This is a good time for him to be giving her many hugs, writing affectionate notes, and having bedtime chats as they are welcomed. As writer Mairi Macleod writes: "If you don't want your little princess to grow up too quickly, she had better be daddy's girl."11

Question: What is the mechanism that causes a "daddy's girl" to mature later? How does that happen?

Answer: We now know from recent findings that fathers emit chemical signals that inhibit menarche and delay the onset of sexual maturity. These emissions are called pheromones, which are hormones detected through the sense of smell, although neither girls nor their dads are aware of them.12 When fathers are absent or uninvolved and the pheromones are not emitted, menarche occurs earlier. Interesting, huh? This is just one of the reasons I wrote earlier that girls need their dads as much as boys do. They unwittingly "engineer" the timing of their daughters' maturation!

9.Ibid.; V. G. Phinney et al, "The Relationship Between Early Development and Psychosexual Behaviors in Adolescent Females," Adolescence 25 (Summer 1990): 321–332.

10.Zuckerman, "When Little Girls Become Women."

11.Macleod, "Her Father's Daughter."

12.R. L. Matchock and E. J. Susman, "Family Composition and Menarcheal Age: Anti-Inbreeding Strategies," American Journal of Human Biology 18, no. 4 (2006): 481–491.

Book: Bringing Up Girls

By Dr. James Dobson

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