An early bloomer is a kid whose body starts to develop ahead of others their age. For some, this means the appearance of breast buds; for others, an unanticipated growth spurt. Whether they get tall or curvy or hairy or stinky, being among the first can bring lots of challenges. Like where should they shop? What products do they need — or want — to start using? And how can they manage their feelings about looking more mature than their friends?
Why a child might head into puberty earlier than most
Technically, puberty just means the path to sexual maturation. Over many years, the body grows and changes but during puberty, specific chemicals produced in the brain, ovaries, and testicles direct the body to make it possible to reproduce. The two most famous hormones involved are estrogen and testosterone — and while estrogen dictates what happens in biologically female bodies and testosterone is in charge of biologically male ones, everyone has a little of each.
Puberty starts when these hormones first begin to surge. These days, the average age for onset of puberty is 8-9 for females and 9-10 for males. Yes, this is significantly younger than it used to be! By a couple of years. But it’s also completely normal and appropriate for someone to reach age 12 or 13 without showing any signs of puberty, resulting in an ever-growing gap between the youngest to enter puberty and the oldest.
No one knows precisely why puberty is beginning earlier — though there are many scientists studying the phenomenon — we do know that it’s not happening faster (for instance, first periods still come around age 12-and-a-half, not much different from a generation or two before). So yes, puberty is starting earlier (for some) and yes, it’s lasting longer than it ever did before.
A moment dedicated to hormones and the brain. Estrogen and progesterone most certainly impact moods. The beloved puberty researcher and endocrinologist Louise Greenspan says it best, “The first sign of puberty is often a slamming door.” It makes sense that hormones impact the way we feel because they don’t just circulate below the neck — they filter in and around the brain, too.
So, while it’s important to recognize some of the physical shifts happening for a given kid, it’s as important to acknowledge the emotional ones as well.
A quick note on what’s NOT puberty
Even though body odor, acne, and hair (pubic, underarm, mustache, and eventually more) tend to appear around the same time as other pubertal changes, these are not actually signs of puberty. These changes are largely governed by hormones released from the adrenal glands (which sit on top of the kidneys), not by the brain, ovaries, and testicles. And while these changes can certainly signal a more adult-looking body, they don’t directly impact the ability to reproduce. So, for those whose kids have insanely stinky feet and armpits, wispy hair growth on the upper lip, or a crop of zits that look classically teenage, you can certainly talk to your doctor, but you are very likely to hear that your child is not yet in puberty.
The age/appearance mismatch. This is probably the biggest hurdle facing early bloomers because they can look much older than they are. When an eight-year-old looks like she’s 10 or a 12-year-old looks like he’s 15, suddenly that child may find themself in situations they’re not ready for. Because of this, it’s really critical that parents and the adults involved in the lives of these mature-looking-but-not-necessarily-mature-thinking kids help anticipate what they’re going to face.
Conversations at the dinner table, role-playing, and helping them to avoid situations that will potentially put them in a socially tricky spot all go a long way.
To learn more about early puberty, listen to Dr. Louise Greenspan on Puberty’s Dramatic Shift: Earlier but Not Faster on the Puberty Podcast.
How to start conversations
Talking is the key to helping kids through this transformative stage of life. Since the stage is going to last the better part of a decade (!), there’s plenty of time. Topics will range from physical changes to emotional shifts to social highs and lows, and these talks can — and really should, if you want to be an ongoing resource for your kid — happen in small bits and pieces over several years. Here are some tips about how to have conversations:
– Open the dialogue without eye contact – in the car, on a walk, at night in a dark room after saying good night are all great ways to make a kid feel less vulnerable.
– Pace yourself! You don’t have to cover everything in one conversation. Aim, for a small point rather than covering too much at any given time.
– Ask questions, then stop talking. Give a kid space and time to reply…otherwise, your “conversation” turns into a lecture.
– Really listen to what your kid is saying. Remember details. Ask clarifying questions. Put your phone down while you are having these conversations!
– For early bloomers, in particular, your worries may not be theirs, so don’t project. If you have medical concerns, ask a health care provider whom you trust. The internet is full of excellent and horrible information — only use sites that are valid and vetted.
This article was co-authored by Dr. Cara Natterson and Vanessa Kroll Bennett, co-hosts of The Puberty Podcast.