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“The Early Onset of Puberty: Understanding the New Normal”

“The Early Onset of Puberty: Understanding the New Normal”

Puberty is a natural part of human development, but what many people don’t realize is that it’s starting earlier than ever before. Recent data has shown that girls are showing the first signs of puberty between the ages of 8 and 9, while boys start between 9 and 10. This means that we have been overlooking this new normal for the past decade. It’s a fact that can be both nerve-rattling and not particularly surprising.

The physical changes that come with puberty can be hard to spot, especially in boys. Slow penile and testicular growth may go unnoticed as boys tend to cover up and seek privacy during this time. On the other hand, breast budding in girls is more noticeable, but they can strategically wear clothing to hide these developments. However, the most recognizable sign of puberty isn’t physical at all – it’s moodiness. Cue the eye rolls and slamming doors.

Mood swings are a universal experience during puberty, but they can manifest differently depending on a child’s personality, temperament, biology, and environment. Girls tend to express their moods more openly, laughing or crying at a louder volume and more frequently than before. Boys, on the other hand, may become quieter or angrier as they navigate through this stage of life. It’s important to recognize that mood swings encompass not just dramatic emotions but also silence, eye rolls, shoulder shrugs, and drama.

Parents often wonder why their 10-year-old acts like they’re 14. The answer lies in hormones. These kids have the hormones at 10 that were once expected at 14. If we find it concerning, imagine how the kids feel. When we teach children about their changing bodies, we ask them if they’ve ever had a reaction that felt disproportionate to the situation at hand, and almost all of them say yes. However, when we ask if they like how it feels, the response is unanimous – no. Mood swings can be confusing, uncomfortable, and even shameful for them. As adults, it’s our responsibility to adjust our expectations of when adolescent behavior will emerge and support the children in front of us.

Science is most effective when paired with relatable guidance. That’s why it’s comforting to know that even puberty scholars experience the same glares and groans from their own children. The only difference is that they understand their kids are riding the hormone roller coaster without a seat belt. Here are a few suggestions they offer:

1. Cut kids some slack: Hormones play a significant role in driving mood swings. Testosterone and estrogen, along with other hormones, surge and plummet aggressively during puberty. While the brain and kids themselves learn to modulate their reactions over time, at the start of puberty, they may feel like prisoners to their responses.

2. Distinguishing between puberty mood swings and mental health struggles: It can be challenging to differentiate between the two, but persistence, intensity, and adjacent changes can provide clues. If mood swings persist for more than a few days, are unusually intense, and are accompanied by changes in appetite, sleep patterns, or energy levels, seeking help from a mental health professional is recommended.

3. Responding to mood swings: Meeting fire with fire gets us nowhere. Instead, it’s essential to model taking a pause and regrouping. Deep breaths can help slow thinking and cool tempers, allowing empathy to seep in. By pausing and acknowledging the child’s emotions, we can create space for a more productive conversation.

4. Owning our mistakes: As parents, we will make mistakes repeatedly. However, when we apologize for our overreactions and take a do-over, we show our children that there is always a way back. This allows everyone involved to see the situation more clearly and demonstrates that true connection lies in the fallibility of our humanity.

Cara Natterson, a pediatrician and author, and Vanessa Kroll Bennett, an author and puberty educator, are experts in the field. They co-authored the book “This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained” and host the Puberty Podcast. They also run Order of Magnitude, a company dedicated to promoting positive discussions around puberty. With their combined experience and expertise, they provide valuable insights into navigating the challenges of puberty.

Puberty is a complex and sometimes overwhelming stage of life for both children and parents. By understanding the early onset of puberty and its effects on mood and behavior, we can better support our children through this transformative period. It’s a time for patience, empathy, and open communication as we guide them on their journey to adulthood.


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