BERKSHIRE, England (WOMENSENEWS)–Janice Friar’s teacher didn’t believe her when Friar told her she’d just got her period.
“She looked at me doubtfully, probably thinking I was mistaking vaginal discharge for period blood and was just desperate to prove I was a grown-up, the way typical kids do,” Friar said thoughtfully in a phone interview. “I can’t say I blame her. I bet she was wondering how you can start your period before you even leave primary school.”
Friar was 9 years old the day she “saw blood in my pants and just freaked out” at her school in Bristol, England. Now 16, Friar embodies a trend in Britain and many parts of the world of earlier onset of puberty. Today, the average age of puberty in the United Kingdom is 10.5 years old, down from 13.1 in 1950, according to Plymouth University. Puberty onset ages are similar in the U.S. for white girls but among black teens the average age for breast budding is more than a year and half earlier, according to a 2010 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The red flags–growths spurts, pubic hair and acne before a girl has entered secondary school — can cause social difficulties and estrangement from peers. When a girl looks like she is growing up she often loses friends and drops activities appropriate to her real age and gains admission to an older social sphere.
“I grew up faster both physically and mentally,” said Friar. “I didn’t want to be stuck playing hopscotch and hide-and-seek with girls my age. So I introduced myself to new things, things I considered more interesting,” she said, lighting a cigarette as she stood by the school bike sheds. “Whilst all the kids were looking for signs they were grown-ups, I had what I considered real evidence.”
Louise Greenspan and Julianna Deardorff are authors of “The New Puberty: How to Handle Early Development in Today’s Girls.” In the book they write that emotional and behavioral difficulties often come with precocious puberty. “Girls with early puberty experience higher rates of depression and anxiety,” they write. “They also exhibit increased rates of smoking and delinquent behavior, as well as earlier sexual experiences.”
At just 11 years old, Ann Bennett was wearing C cup bras and battling insecurity, obesity and depression.
At a time when her London peers were pulling their shirts tight against their chests to showcase their growing breasts, Bennett didn’t sense any advantage. Her breasts may have been big, but she constantly felt small; even now, six years later. “The boys would say big chests don’t count if you’re fat. The girls would mimic my every move. It was an everyday misery,” she said.
Ordinarily, adolescence means the simultaneous physical and emotional passage out of childhood. But early onset puberty puts physical development ahead of the psychological aspects. That leaves children in possession of bodies they’re unable to understand it.
At 7, Matilda Jenkins hid the pubic hair she was growing under her armpits and legs as much as she could.
In an email interview, the now 14-year-old, who lives in the south of Scotland, said she particularly hated being hairy amongst her hairless friends and would wear long pants instead of skirts and sleeves instead of straps, even in the summer.
Jenkins has since been struggling for better self-esteem. “To be honest, I developed serious insecurity issues and was obsessed with perfection,” she said. “I preferred boys to school books and, even now at the age I am, I’m struggling to reverse some damages I did to myself.”
Researchers still don’t fully understand what is causing the rise in early puberty. Various studies have pointed to family stress, obesity, even too many sugary drinks at a sensitive point in hormonal development.
Friar, the Bristol teen, was certainly suffering family stress when early onset puberty hit. Her mother had recently remarried and she was adjusting to a new home, a stepfather and new siblings.
“I wasn’t really smart either,” she said. “So everything pretty much sucked.”