THE age at which puberty begins is falling, and young children and their parents are having to get to grips with physical and emotional changes like periods, acne and mood swings years earlier than expected.
Fabulous investigates what’s causing our kids to grow up so fast…
Helping her eight-year-old daughter into her school uniform, Fiona was shocked to notice little Poppy* was growing breasts.
Already suffering from acne, and with body hair growing, Poppy was developing years before her school friends.
“I’d heard of girls starting puberty young, but I didn’t expect it to begin when she was seven,” says mum-of-one Fiona, 31.
“I first noticed signs of puberty in January 2020. Her baby-soft skin suddenly started developing acne.
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"Then I realised she was growing hair on her legs and in her armpits.
"By December of that year, when she was eight, I saw she had breast buds developing.
“It was a shock. I wasn’t expecting these changes to her body until she was at least 12, as that had been my experience of puberty.
“To me, she was still a baby. She was still playing with dolls and Lego and wanted me to read her a bedtime story.
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"I wasn’t ready for her to grow up and I worried about the impact on her of developing so early. I didn’t want anyone to pass comment or for her to be bullied,” says Fiona, who is separated from Poppy’s dad.
“I didn’t say anything to her about it, as I didn’t want to make a fuss and cause her to feel self-conscious. But I did buy her some little bra tops to wear under her school uniform.”
Poppy is now 10 and started her period just a few weeks ago.
“That is quite scary for me to come to terms with,” Fiona says. “She hasn’t even had sex education at school yet, but already I have had to sit down with her and explain what is happening to her body and also how babies are made, because if she’s having periods, she can get pregnant.
"It seems so much for a girl of her age to have to deal with.”
Poppy is part of a new generation of children who are hitting puberty earlier than what is considered usual, with recent research revealing girls are beginning to develop a full year earlier than women 40 years ago.**
While puberty usually begins between eight and 13 years in girls, and nine and 14 years in boys, mothers like Fiona are finding themselves steering younger children through what can be a confusing and challenging time.
“Early puberty is when it happens to girls aged eight and under, and boys aged nine and under,” explains Jenny Child of the charity Child Growth Foundation.
“It’s exactly the same as normal puberty and children go through the same changes, just much earlier than you’d expect.
“Statistics show it is about three months earlier every decade, so the change is very slow, but consistent.”
Fiona and Poppy are facing those changes still.
“I worry that something will be said to her or that she might be bullied about it.”
“My mum Carol, now 65, was 12 when she started her periods, as was I,” says Fiona, a psychology student from Leicestershire.
“I thought that was early – some of my friends didn’t start theirs until 13 or 14.
“I knew something was happening to Poppy, as in the months leading up to her first period she was very emotional.
“At her age, she doesn’t really understand how to control those emotions.
"It has caused her a lot of anxiety and she’s had to learn how to use sanitary products.
“I’ve always suffered with severe pains and mood swings and was recently diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which causes depression and anxiety in the days before your period starts, so I hope that won’t affect her in the future.”
One of the biggest issues for Poppy is getting changed for her school swimming lesson every Friday.
“She gets very upset, as she knows she will have to get changed in front of all the year six girls,” Fiona says.
“Only two of her friends know she’s started and they try to help, but she’s very self-conscious. I had to make the teacher aware she had started her period, too.
“I worry that something will be said to her or that she might be bullied about it.”
So why are our girls experiencing puberty earlier than women in the past?
Early puberty begins when the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain make signals to the reproductive glands, telling them to start making hormones earlier than usual.
For a small number of girls, it can be triggered by a problem with the brain, such as a tumour, head trauma or infection, but usually there is no obvious explanation.
It’s less common in boys, but in some cases, it can be inherited from the father.
Children who start early may be physically bigger than their peers, and researchers have flagged the correlation between the rise in early puberty and the increase in childhood obesity – though children who are not classed as obese can also begin changing early.
'I FOUND IT EMBARRASSING'
“Children often experience rapid growth,” Jenny explains.
“A child who starts puberty early may be bigger and more physically advanced than their peers, and these children may also develop other sexual characteristics, such as pubic hair, penile enlargement or breasts at a noticeably early age, as well as acne, body odour and changes in body shape.”
In some cases, hormone treatments are offered on the NHS to slow down or delay puberty.
“The hormone treatment halts puberty, so the child will go through it at a more appropriate time and is more able to cope with the changes,” says Jenny.
Some parents, however, don’t seek medical help as they don’t realise what is happening.
“A child may be showing signs of puberty, but parents don’t spot it as they think, at the age of six or seven, their child is too young. They dismiss it,” says Jenny.
“Other parents just don’t like talking about it. They may feel embarrassed that their child is developing sexually and keep it to themselves.”
Soraia Fernandes, 26, from Southend-on-Sea, Essex, hit puberty when she was eight, but she kept it a secret from friends.
“I found it very embarrassing,” recalls Soraia, a treatment coordinator at a dental practice and mum to William, one.
“My mum was always very open and she spoke to me around the age of seven about what a period was, explaining that it is a natural thing.
"She had been only nine when she started hers, so she wanted me to be prepared.
“At school, it was embarrassing though. No one else had their period.
"I told my best friend and her reaction was: ‘Eugh, you’ve got blood coming out of you.’
"I tried to explain to her that it was normal and she would get it too, but most kids knew nothing at that age.
“After her reaction, I never mentioned it again. I’d always hide it. I suffered quite bad period pains and couldn’t do PE, but I never admitted to anyone why.
"I’d just say I felt sick or had a headache.
“Asking the teacher to use the toilet was a nightmare. My mum had told the school, but they weren’t very supportive and I think they’d forgotten because of my age.
"They’d say: ‘No, you’ve only just been,’ but my periods were heavy and I was terrified I’d leak and everyone would laugh at me.
"Back then, teachers didn’t expect an eight-year-old girl to have started her periods.
“Sometimes, I’d need paracetamol to cope with the pain, but if I asked the teacher if I could get them from my bag, they’d demand to know why in front of the whole class.”
A year before beginning her periods, Soraia had begun to develop breasts, so by the age of eight she was both menstruating and wearing a bra.
“I wore a tight sports bra and baggy T-shirts to try to hide my breasts.
"Other kids would still notice and I’d get comments from both the boys and girls during PE lessons about them bouncing around.
“It was a horrific time for me. I felt different and embarrassed by my body – and by 10 I was using hair-removal cream on my legs and armpits,” she remembers.
According to research carried out by the University of Bristol, children who experience early puberty are more likely to be diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives, and girls are more likely to self-harm.
“Hitting puberty so young can be detrimental to mental health.
Soraia believes hitting puberty so young has had a lasting psychological impact on her.
“To this day, I cover up as much as possible, especially my chest. I’ve always been very self-conscious of my body, and as a result, I’ve had quite low self-esteem,” she says.
“Hitting puberty so young can be detrimental to mental health. You have a lack of information at that age and end up closing yourself off to friends and feel alone.
"Long-term it makes you more introverted, and even now I bottle up my feelings.
“Girls need to be educated at a younger age so they know what to expect if it happens to them.”
Jenny agrees that starting puberty early can have a huge psychological impact on a child.
“What you see is an individual who is still very much a child, yet they start developing characteristics you’d see in a 12 or 13 year old.
"How they look changes, and this can have an impact on their school life and friendships.
“Girls can be very stressed and agitated before their period. Younger children find it hard to understand why this is happening to them. Their behaviour may change and this can impact the whole family.”
Thankfully, awareness around younger girls starting their periods is increasing.
Free sanitary products have been offered to girls in primary schools in England since early 2020, while period pants have become widely available in high street shops.
For Fiona and Poppy, although it has been tough, the experience of navigating early puberty has brought the mother and daughter closer together.
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“It has been difficult, but I’m determined to support Poppy through this as best I can,” Fiona says.
“And I hope by sharing our experience, other mums and daughters will realise they’re not alone.”
- For information and support, visit Childgrowthfoundation.org.
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