Puberty can be daunting for girls, especially when it comes too early and they don’t know what to expect. If teachers and parents can talk about puberty in a natural way, it could help to normalise things and prepare them for the changes that will be coming their way.
Medical research shows that since 1900 the age at which a girl gets her first period has dropped by more than three years. Instead of starting menarche between ages 13 and 15, instances of ‘precocious puberty’ are becoming common in girls, with the cycle beginning at age nine and younger in some.
This trend carries significant health risks, but if handled judiciously and sensitively by parents, teachers and doctors it can still be a smooth rite of passage into adulthood.
“Puberty can be a challenging and confusing time,” says Zohara Jamal, a Bengaluru-based fashion brand influencer, whose daughter’s menarche started at age 11. “Knowing in advance what to expect and why these changes happen can help a young girl feel more in control as she goes through it. Luckily, she was so clued in and unfazed by it all that even I was amazed. It turned out that the school had already given them enough information about the natural development of the human body and what changes to expect, so that she was well-prepared when it happened.”
Zohara says hormones injected into food, especially chicken, could be a key factor in early puberty. “Around the same time my daughter turned towards plant-based foods and stopped eating chicken completely,” she says. “I feel that this helped in slowing down the early puberty process somewhat.”
Changing lanes during puberty
This stage of life involves many physical and psychological changes, which are a result of the shifts in hormone levels. Some children apparently deal with it better than others.
“Letting your daughter know that everyone is different and that her body will start changing when it is ready can really help,” says Arjun Lakshmipathy, a Bengaluru-based counsellor specialising in children and adolescents, who helps parents deal with a wide range of issues such as gender identity and body dysmorphia. “Puberty is all about making us capable of reproducing and starting the next generation, meaning that your child’s body will eventually be capable of creating a new life. So, they need to know this. However, it’s equally important to reassure them that even though their body may be ready that they still need to do a lot more ‘growing up’ before this will happen.”
The good news, Lakshmipathy says, is that parents are increasingly open to consulting therapists and counsellors to address issues regarding puberty and adolescence compared with a generation or two ago.
Needed: a supportive environment
“Dealing sensitively with early puberty is very important though,” he says. “Create a supportive environment for your daughter, avoid overt comments on her appearance and focus instead on her achievements — academic successes or artistic talents. Speak to her openly and honestly about the physical changes she’s experiencing. Tell her that these changes are normal — she’s simply developing early — and that ultimately her peers will undergo the same changes.
“Encourage her to continue participating in social activities and pursue her interests. Most importantly, reassure her that you are always open and accessible to discuss any questions or worries. Seek the help of a therapist or counsellor, if necessary.”
However, if a child is experiencing precocious puberty, also known as early puberty, and is showing clear signs of puberty and its progression even before age eight, then it is important to take it seriously and consult a paediatric endocrinologist, says gynaecologist Dr Vidya Desai.
“Puberty is a key stage in the transition from childhood to adulthood and a normal part of growing up,” she says. “However, each child’s experience of it is unique. Ultimately, the most important factor for a girl’s well-being may be social, and probably the best time for a girl to go through it is when her friends are experiencing the same. However, early puberty must be recognized and dealt with professionally.”