The Misnomer of Early Puberty

The Misnomer of Early Puberty

Paige Vickers for NPR

Paige Vickers for NPR

Early can mean lots of things to lots of people. My husband thinks that unless you arrive somewhere 10 minutes before you are expected, you are actually late; my mother, not so much. The definition of early puberty seems just as flexible.

In case you missed it, a few weeks ago a study connecting early puberty and depression hit the press. NPR covered it, as did many other news outlets. But the piece wasn’t really about puberty, per se; it was about girls getting their periods. And so coverage of the study added its own dollop of confusion to a larger communication problem in our culture, namely that “early puberty” means lots of different things to lots of different people.

Puberty is the path to sexual maturity, and by the end of it a person should be capable, at least in theory, of reproducing. The start of puberty is determined by a small orchestra of hormones that course through the body over months (sometimes years) before any patently obvious changes appear. Then those hormones ebb and flow over many years until the slow transformation to physical adulthood is complete. Because, on the front end of this stage of life, hormones can spend quite a long time floating around with no obvious effects, the plain and simple definition of when puberty starts is not always plain or simple.

Lots of articles, like this one from NPR, define puberty as beginning when a girl gets her period for the first time. That definition is, in a word, wrong. Hormones work steadily for a long time causing lots of changes inside the body before a girl ever gets a period. Even if this weren’t the case (it is), a period couldn’t possibly be the measure of the onset of puberty because it only happens to half of the population.

Other stories call out the start of puberty by pointing to body changes – think: budding breasts and acne – which almost always precede periods. This is a step in the right direction since puberty is acknowledged sooner, but it’s still a flawed definition. That’s because when girls start to have visible body changes, these can come in almost any order: some see the emergence of mini-torpedoes under their nipples first; others get hairy before anything else; still others become curvy; and anyone who has ever lived with a 9- or 10-year-old girl knows darned well that eyes often roll and moods often swing well before any physical changes appear. Like periods as a hallmark, relying on visible body changes to hail puberty also casts boys aside since their earliest changes tend to happen below the belt in the form of penile and testicle growth. Let’s just say that information about boy genital development often isn’t readily accessible to parents thanks to everything from cultural norms to a strong sense of personal privacy.

Puberty actually begins way earlier than most people realize. Hopefully, as time goes on, writers and parents alike will begin to talk about the earlier and subtler signs of puberty’s onset. And for good reason: if illness and early puberty are connected, we may be able to recognize the symptoms of illness and treat the issue sooner, too.