How Girls Are Developing Earlier In An Age Of ‘New Puberty’

NPR

Girl looking at alphabet blocks --- Image by © Trina Dalziel/Ikon Images/Corbis

Trina Dalziel/Ikon Images/Corbis

Many girls are beginning puberty at an early age, developing breasts sooner than girls of previous generations. But the physical changes don’t mean the modern girls’ emotional and intellectual development is keeping pace.

Two doctors have written a book called The New Puberty that looks at the percentage of girls who are going through early puberty, the environmental, biological and socioeconomic factors that influence when puberty begins, and whether early puberty is linked with an increased risk of breast cancer.

“It has been established that girls who enter puberty earlier are more likely to have symptoms of anxiety, higher levels of depression, initiate sex earlier and sexual behaviors earlier,” Julianna Deardorff tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.

Deardorff and Louise Greenspan are co-investigators in a long-term study of puberty. They’ve been following 444 girls from the San Francisco Bay area since 2005, when the girls were 6 to 8 years old. The study is funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Deardorff says that while early puberty could be hard on a young girl, family and school support matters.

“The family can serve as a huge buffer against some of those negative effects of early puberty,” she says. “There’s also been some research to show that certain aspects of the neighborhood context and also schools can be protective. … It can completely mitigate the risk associated with early puberty on girls’ emotional and behavioral functioning.”


The New Puberty

On early puberty

Louise Greenspan: The evidence suggests that in the past, age 8 was the cut-off for normal puberty, so we thought that less than 5 percent of girls were going through puberty before the age of 8. I do want to define what we mean in the medical profession by “starting puberty.” A lot of people in the lay public think that that means getting your period. What we’re talking about is actually starting with breast development and pubic hair and what the research that we did with our colleagues found was that at age 7, 15 percent of girls had breast development, and at age 8, 27 percent had breast development. And in terms of pubic hair development, at age 7, 10 percent of girls had it and by 8, 19 percent had pubic hair development. That was significantly higher that what had been found in the past.

On how the numbers vary by race

Greenspan: At age 7, 25 percent of black girls have breast development, compared to 15 percent of Hispanic girls and only 10 percent of white girls and 2 percent of Asian girls. The same pattern can be seen for pubic hair development.

On separating puberty from sexuality

Greenspan: I think we do want to make sure we do separate puberty and sexuality. For these kids, they’re used to their bodies changing: they’re losing teeth, they have to get new shoes every six months because their feet are growing, so for them, if the adults in their lives don’t put it into a sexual context, it’s just sort of a different change that can be happening in their body. We have to be careful to [not] immediately leap to sexualizing 7-year-old girls.

On how early puberty could be linked environmental exposure

Julianna Deardorff: What I find concerning is that puberty is a process that’s very sensitive to the environment and we can move the timing of puberty, unintentionally, vis-a-vis environmental exposures.

… Puberty in and of itself in starting early has a lot of disconcerting aspects … [I wonder if] this [is] kind of a canary in a coal mine, or a barometer for other things that we’re all being exposed to in our environments that may not be healthy for other reasons — we’re just not seeing those as obviously.

On chemicals that are hormone mimickers

Deardorff: They’re referred to endocrine disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, or another term for that is “hormone mimickers.” That’s because in the body, they mimic hormones and, in this case, when we’re talking about girls’ early puberty, estrogen is the hormone that we’re most concerned about.

Greenspan: There [are] several chemicals that may mimic estrogen in the body. In animal studies, a big one that we’re looking at — the culprit is called Bisphenol A, or BPA. BPA was actually invented as a medical estrogen, it’s a weak estrogen, and it ended up becoming ubiquitous in plastics [and] … it’s also on paper, receipts and in other compounds. The concern is that it may leech out of those and into our bodies and may act like an estrogen.

Julianna Deardorff (left) is a clinical psychologist and is on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. Louise Greenspan is a clinical pediatric endocrinologist at Kaiser Permanente and is on the faculty at University of California, San Francisco.

Majed Abolfazli/Courtesy of Rodale Books

Our study has not yet demonstrated that this one, single chemical is causing early puberty, but it is one of the ones we’re looking at. One of the problems with deciding which chemical is that there’s no one single smoking gun. We live in a toxic milieu of many, many, many chemicals and it’s actually becoming impossible to isolate the single one, so we’re looking at the ones that may work together.

One of the reasons we were really motivated to get this book out there was so that folks could have some guidelines about how to use what many people call the “precautionary principle,” which is — if you’re not sure about it, find a safer alternative, because the science just isn’t there yet.

On boys’ puberty

Greenspan: The jury is still out on what’s happening with boys’ puberty. There is some evidence that boys’ puberty may be starting earlier as well, but we don’t have the definitive studies that demonstrate that yet. One of the concerns is that the hormones that are estrogen mimickers might actually delay boys’ puberty because boys’ puberty is not an estrogen-related process, it’s more of a … testosterone-related process. So the same chemical may have different effects in boys versus girls in terms of their pubertal development.

On how antibiotics in our food could be causing early puberty

Greenspan: The concern about antibiotics is that one of the reasons antibiotics are used in the food supply is not just to treat animals’ infections, it’s actually because when animals are given antibiotics they get fatter and they go through pubertal development earlier. So it speeds up the process of raising a young animal to an animal that’s ready for slaughter. It makes them bigger, so it’s more efficient. The concern is that if antibiotics are doing this to animals … and they’re not broken down in the intestinal system, in fact they’re absorbed orally in the stomach when we eat them, could they be having a similar effect in kids?

On soy and its connection (or lack thereof) to breast cancer

Greenspan: We did look at soy intake, both by asking the girls what they ate and also the measuring the levels in the urine. And we found preliminary data that suggests that soy is actually protective and that higher soy intake may lead to later puberty, even when controlling for the differences in the families where there was a lot of soy intake because obviously there are differences in families that are giving their kids a lot of tofu.

The theory would be that the estrogen mimicking effects of soy may actually cause the body to become resistant to estrogen — that it may down-regulate the estrogen receptor, so that later in life, your body doesn’t perceive or see estrogen in quite the same way.

We think that soy may actually be protective. The data is now coming out that women shouldn’t worry so much about their soy intake for breast cancer, but it does speak to another concept in environmental health, which is the window of susceptibility. That means the timing of when you are exposed to something does affect the outcome. We think that children should eat soy because that’s when it trains their body to become resistant to estrogen.

The Three Most Important Questions You Can Ask Your Teenager

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According to the social scientists, the last of the millennials are now gracing our high school campuses. The Pew Research Center report on this cohort describes them as “confident, connected, and open to change.” I agree. Technology is their metier. They embrace diversity like no generation before them. They seek to serve the dispossessed and the disadvantaged. They work to find green solutions to the environmental mess we have bequeathed them. In this regard, they are focussed and unrelenting: a good thing for all of us.

Beneath their energy and commitment to building a better world, though, is stretched, for too many, a fragile membrane that is easily punctured. We have raised a generation that is plagued with insecurity, anxiety and despair.

Former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz, in his fascinating and controversial bookExcellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life writes this of the millennials:

A large-scale survey found self-reports of emotional well being have fallen to the lowest levels in 25 year study… fifty percent of college students report feelings of hopelessness; one-third reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function in the last twelve months … They are stressed-out, over-pressured; [they exhibit] toxic levels of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness, and isolation. (p. 8)

His is not a lone voice. Deresiewicz quotes adolescent expert Madeline Levine from her book The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids:

Preteens from affluent, well-educated families… experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country. As many as 22 percent of adolescent girls from financially comfortable families suffer from clinical depression. (pp. 45-46)

College deans from elite schools join the chorus. The Stanford Provost writes, for example, (and remember that Stanford is now the most selective university in the country):

Increasingly we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns ranging from self-esteem issues and developmental disorders to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behavior, schizophrenia, and suicidal behavior. (p. 8)

What gives?

Deresiewicz claims that this generation of highly accomplished, college-bound students have been robbed of their independence because they have been raised in a petri dish for one purpose only: to attend an elite college that ensures their and their families’ economic and social status. Instead of being nurtured towards real curiosity and a genuine sense of citizenship, these millennials are conditioned to think that everything they do is for the purpose of looking good in the eyes of admissions officers and employers: you earn good grades not because they mean you are learning something, but rather because they will help you stand out from your peers when applying to the Ivies. You engage in community service not because you wish genuinely to make a positive difference in the lives of others but rather because that is how you burnish your resume — service as check-off box. You play sports not because they build character and teamwork and are a whole lot of fun, but because you want to try to get recruited for a college team. You study art or music not because you wish to refine your understanding of human nature, creativity and culture but because it will help you look smarter.

There is little intrinsic value in what you do. The result: Many college students who fall apart under pressure because they cannot conceive of the fact that hard work and learning are positive outcomes in and of themselves. They have no sense of who they are or what is important in their lives. They have spent so much time trying to look good that they do not know what “The Good” (consider Plato here) really is. They are walking ghosts of seeming, not of being.

Deresiewicz writes:

All the values that once informed the way we raise our children – the cultivation of character, the development of the capacity for democratic citizenship, let alone any emphasis on the pleasure of freedom of play, the part of childhood where you actually get to be a child – all of these are gone. (p. 50)

He laments:

Beyond the junior careerism, the directionless ambition, the risk aversion, and the Hobbesian competitiveness, the system cultivates some monumental cynicism. Whatever the motives of which they were established, the old WASP admissions criteria actually meant something. Athletics were thought to build character – courage and selflessness and team spirit. The arts embodied an ideal of culture. Service was designed to foster a public-minded ethos in our future leaders. Leadership itself was understood to be a form of duty. (p. 56)

The underlying sentiment, and he is correct about this, is that when we teach our children that outcomes are more important than process they lose the ability to enjoy learning for its own sake. Everything becomes about the end-game. The problem is that the end game – whether it turns out as they anticipated or not – is often not intrinsically rewarding. Each effort, each moment, rather than being full as a part of a rich life is simply degraded into being a mere step in a process that leads to…an existential abyss.

The statistics, as related by college deans, adolescent expert Madeline Levine, Professor Deresiewicz, and others, unfortunately bear this out. We have raised a generation of kids who are taught that appearance is more important than substance and that outcomes are more important than character. As a result, they inhabit empty vessels that lead them to a series of negative behaviors that results in, yes, unhappiness, which they try erase with empty sex, drugs, alcohol, and what Professor Deresiewicz calls “junior careerism and Hobbesian competitiveness.” The hookups, drugs, and alcohol, of course, just make this abyss deeper and wider.

We can do better.

Truth is, we know full well that lasting happiness springs from good health, solid values, meaningful work, multiple positive relationships, and selfless service. So how about we cease and desist on the pressure front – and get our eye back on the ball that matters – stop asking What (What grade did you get? What team did you make?) and begin asking Who, Where, and How?

  1. Who tells us who we are?
  2. Where do we want to go with our lives?
  3. How do we want to get there?

Question one is important because forces are lined up (internet, television, movies, advertising, just for starters) that tell us who we are is not about how hard we work, how curious we are, or how much we are willing to make a positive difference to others and to our world in distress. No, these forces say: You are what you wear, what you buy, how thin or buff you are, how many like you (on Facebook or anything else) – or for the elite college bound crowd – where you go to college. When we focus on the wrong things, we create these conditions for monumental cynicism in our kids. Our children need to learn that they are important not for reasons of appearance but for reasons of substance.

Question two is important because if we believe that the only thing that matters is college and job status then how can we not end up frustrated, angry, and lonely? Where we want to go with our lives is intrinsically linked to the question of what leads us to fulfillment and happiness? For most of us the answer is passion. We all know we are in the right jobs when how long we work at something is driven by interest and not only about earning a paycheck. The truth is that we are all going to have to work hard to succeed in life, and if that is the case, let’s us at least try to work hard on things that matter and that we care about.

Question three may be the most important because how we get anywhere is as critical as where we end up. Kids cheat in school because they think grades are more important than what they learn. They take short-cuts because they believe the longer, harder path has no value or because they are afraid of stumbling or of being seen as someone who stumbles. They are mean or cruel or uncaring often because they do not like themselves; they feel they cannot make the grade that will earn them a spot at That College. They begin to see others as competitors for those spots – not as fellow-journeyers. Diminished self-respect skulks alongside little respect for others. No one wins.

To return to where we started: The millennials are accomplishing great things, caring about important things. But too many of them look inside only to peer into a void that we, at least in part, have helped to create. In our efforts to push our kids ahead, we have forgotten to ask why pushing ahead is important in the first place. What future, what adulthood are they pushing to?

So generation Z is on its way. Let’s go back to the basics. Let’s help them understand that learning is valuable in and of itself; that hard work, genuine curiosity, and heartfelt passion pave the way to a life well lived; and that real success comes when you can look at your life and say, “I have done my best to make a positive difference in the lives of others and the world we live in.”

Michael K. Mulligan is the Head of The Thacher School in Ojai, California. A graduate of Middlebury College, The Breadloaf School of English at Middlebury, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he has taught, coached, and counseled teens for 38 years.