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Early Puberty Is the New Normal

Girls are developing early and fast, the evidence is irrefutable. Up to a quarter of some groups of girls have breasts by age of 7—so, in the second grade. At the same age, 10 percent of all girls in one study had pubic hair, nearly double that by the following year.

This "precocious puberty" presents a problem for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it's likely a symptom of chemicals known to be endocrine interrupters in the environment. The bigger problem, though, is how to raise such young girls who are going through physical signs of maturity while still being, you know, young.

Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff take on both of these problems in "The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today's Girls," published last year. The two look at the findings in a long-term nationwide study that has followed more than 1,200 girls in three cities since 2005. Launched in 2005 when the girls were 6 to 8 years old, the researchers found that by age 7, 10 percent of the Caucasian girls, 15 percent of the Hispanic girls and 25 percent of the African American girls have breasts. One year later, 18 percent of the Caucasian girls, 31 percent of the Hispanics and 43 percent of the African Americans had breasts.

Heather White summarized the research in Mother Jones. She also writes that at age 7, 10 percent of girls in the study had pubic hair, and by 8, that figure nearly doubled to 19 percent. The average age for a girl's first period is now 12 years old—significantly earlier for some groups.

Girls exhibiting these early signs of puberty are barely considered tweens. They're certainly not the age that many of their moms were when they started developing. The question becomes, how do you raise girls who are growing up so fast?

Greenspan and Deardorff are clear in their book that these girls are not actually growing up fast. Their bodies are, for whatever reasons, developing. But their emotional needs are still that of little girls. The doctors tell parents, teachers and adults to treat the girls the age they are, not the age they look. "Studies have found that the most serious effects of early puberty are often on girls' mental health: increased danger of depression, eating disorders and risky behaviors like drug abuse have all been linked to early puberty," White writes.

Image by Twenty20/JeffPicoultPhotography

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