Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Early Puberty: How Parenting Advice Goes Wrong


"RECORD numbers of girls not yet old enough for middle school are starting puberty.”

So begins a recent op-ed in the New York Times written by the authors of a new book on puberty. This sounds alarming, like there’s a near epidemic of girls in large numbers entering puberty earlier than ever before. There is some evidence girls are experiencing breast development earlier, some by the authors, but the baseline data is not great. Girls don’t appear to be getting their periods earlier but some health professionals don't agree. The historical record is sparse. It is not a stretch to say it has not firmly established the timing of puberty.  Much of the data involves girls of European, mostly northern European descent. I wrote about it here and at my column at Psychology Today if you want to read about the issues with the historical evidence (e.g., how do we know when girls started puberty 50, 100 years ago?). 

But hey, let’s accept girls are entering puberty earlier and by that we’re really talking about breast development. Take a look at the other claims. 
“Early puberty can lead to eating disorders, depression, substance abuse, early sexual activity and, later in life, breast cancer.”
The thinking from early in the days of adolescence psychology (1960s and 70s) has been girls who started developing earlier were at risk for a variety of social and psychological harms. Why? Because they were different from their peers, they looked different. They were treated differently. They probably acted older too. Older boys paid attention to them. Older girls let them hang out with them. They started drinking and having sex earlier.  

But here is where things get tricky. The above argument, except for the breast cancer evidence, suggests girls are vulnerable because they’re different from their same-aged classmates and peers. If large percentages of girls are developing earlier than is “sticking out” so noticeable and thus perilous? If everybody is doing it earlier, then how is the mature girl more at risk now? If there are more girls starting puberty earlier than ever, shouldn’t this risk be reduced? If puberty is skewing earlier, it might have new effects, true. Sure but if there are “record numbers” of girls getting breast at nine, ten or younger, doesn’t it become the norm?  

"RECORD numbers" suggests a large percentage of girls start earlier. If that's the case then it's the norm. On the other hand, as I suspect, it's only a small percentage of girls affected, then making it sound like an epidemic is not perhaps the best way to discuss it - and we can still worry about girls sticking out and feeling and looking different. I bet this is cleared up in the book. 

“But as doctors, we wince at misleading stories that blame substances that are not likely to bear the primary responsibility — hormones in our meat or soy in our diets, for instance. The real culprits include two problems that are often overlooked: obesity and family stress.”
I like the nod to debunking and correcting misinformation. But this is bold, identifying the causes of early puberty – there are many different opinions and much mixed research results. These authors worked on the research showing breast development at earlier ages. Surely they’re aware there’s divided opinion about the role of obesity here.

But okay let’s accept obesity and move on.

Family stress.

This is not a new claim or phenomenon. Again, though, remember the authors’ first statement? “Record number of girls.” This supposed increase is explained by two factors in their opinion – obesity and family stress. Thus more families must be in crises than ever. True, more kids are living in single-parent households. But are they more stressed than ever? Are families in general more stressed? Do you think this really explains it? How on earth are families more stressed than 100 years ago? The authors refer to “toxic stress” so it sure sounds like they believe this to be true. Am I the only having issues with this argument?

Here is the cause for my real frustration with this op-ed.
"Providing a warm emotional environment at home can not only help prevent early puberty, but also mitigate the psychological effects if it occurs. To buffer against toxic stress, parents should prioritize setting aside time to engage with their daughters and bond emotionally."
This is what gives parenting and child experts a bad reputation. 

To suggest parents can prevent early puberty by getting all warm and cozy with their daughters is absurd. They might as well have said Moms, dads, if you don't listen to and show love towards your daughters, they will start puberty earlier and endure all the terrible risks associated with it. Nonsense and offensive. And the patronizing sentiment here, just incredible. I’d be nearly speechless, wordless, if I weren’t so offended. If toxic stress does exist I guarantee this kind of advice does not buffer it.

Maybe some experts should prioritize setting aside time to engage with their own advice and logic. 

NOTE: I have not read the book yet. Sometimes as we've heard from adolescent psychologist Laurence Steinberg, the limited space doesn't always lend itself to a nuanced discussion. I read and enjoyed his Steinberg's book on adolescence, by the way, and put it on my best books of 2014. 

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