Understanding puberty

Puberty is much more than a process of physical change.

Going through puberty is tough enough when you’re a teenager, but for some children the onset of puberty happens much earlier than it should, and this can cause problems later in life. Early maturing is known as precocious puberty. If you spot warning signs in your child, ask their doctor to refer them to a specialist immediately.

What is precocious puberty?

Puberty is considered to be precocious in girls when it comes on before they are eight years old, while in boys it is before the age of nine. There have been rare cases of preschoolers going through puberty.

What are the signs?

• Pubic or underarm hair

• A burst of rapid growth

• Adult-smelling body odour

• Acne

Your daughter may have:

• Breast growth

• Her first period

Your son may have:

• Enlarged testicles and penis

• Facial hair (starting with the upper lip)

• A deepening voice

What causes it?

Doctors are often unable to figure out why puberty starts prematurely. But, in other instances, an underlying medical condition may be responsible. These include brain tumours, a brain defect or injury, inherited disorders or genetic diseases that cause hormones to behave abnormally, or hypothyroidism – a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough hormones.

Who can get it?

Girls are more prone to precocious puberty than boys, and so are children who have had medical conditions that cause abnormal production of sex hormones. It’s thought contact with products containing hormones – such as oestrogen or testosterone – can also increase the risk of developing precocious puberty. Obesity is another trigger.

Are there any complications?

Unfortunately, yes. These include:

• Being short While children with precocious puberty maybe taller than everyone else their age, they usually stop growing earlier than normal and end up being shorter than the average adult.

• Emotional problems Going through early puberty can make children self-conscious and they may become socially withdrawn. Boys who go through it often have aggression problems, because they’re not equipped to handle all the testosterone going through their bodies.

Can it be treated?

If early maturing is due to a medical condition, your doctor may be able to offer treatment in the hope that if they eradicate the original problem, then your child’s development will slow down. If there’s no obvious cause, it is hard to treat. Thereis medication available (oftenin the form of a monthly injection) that can delay further development. See a doctor as soon as you suspect something is wrong, as they may help to slow down the process before it causes any permanent damage. Give your child reassurance and the facts with a simple, truthful explanation. Let them know these changes are perfectly normal for older kids, but their body has started this processa little too early.

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