Teen girls developing at a younger age
Posted July 20, 2009 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated October 12, 2011 9:50 a.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Without a doubt, the world is moving at a faster pace today, and children are growing up quicker.
It's not just cultural influences. Doctors say young girls are reaching puberty earlier than previous generations – sometimes at ages as young as 7.
"In general, the trend for the onset of puberty in girls is becoming younger," said Dr. William Lagarde, a pediatric endocrinologist at WakeMed in Raleigh.
According to scientific studies, the age of puberty in girls has fallen from 11 to 10 in the past two decades.
Some scientists theorize chemicals in household cleaners and pesticides mimic estrogen, throwing girls into early puberty. Others believe growth hormones in milk and meats are responsible.
Lagarde says he does not think scientists have enough data to show a clear link.
"People have looked at chemicals in the environment, endocrine disruptors and such, but it's not clear why it's happening," Lagarde said. "None of these chemicals have been really clearly associated with earlier onset of puberty."
While scientists are researching why, families are coping with the emotional and practical challenges associated with early development.
The development of breasts and the onset of menstruation at an early age can leave girls – possibly unaware of what is happening to their bodies – scared, embarrassed and confused.
"I had this one friend, and she developed faster than everyone else," said Kara Johnson, 13. "Sometimes, she felt really sad about it, and she tried to talk to me about it because she felt like people were teasing her and picking on her."
Also 13 and in eighth grade, people have mistaken Kayla Madia for a college student.
"It's very odd having people ask me if I'm in college when I'm in middle school," Kayla said. "I didn't realize I looked that old to them."
"Clothing is a huge challenge – trying to find clothes that are age appropriate and that she likes," Kayla's mother, Debbie Madia, said. "Cleavage is not an option when you're 13."
In cases in which there is a danger of inadequate growth – experts say that, if puberty begins too early, a girl's adult height can be stunted significantly – doctors can prescribe medicine to slow or to stop early puberty.
"We do have medicine that we can give that actually suppress puberty and actually pause or turn off the pituitary gland so that puberty does not progress while you're on that particular medicine," Lagrande said.
But for the most part, doctors recommend families help their daughters learn to accept their development.
"At the same time, you don't want to put too much emphasis on it, because you don't want to shift the other way and make them feel embarrassed," Debbie Madia said. "They can't control what's happening to their bodies."