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11/01/2011 01:56 EDT | Updated 01/01/2012 05:12 EST

Early Onset Puberty: The Facts And How To Help Your Child Cope

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Puberty can be a challenging and complicated experience for any kid. But what if your child's physical and emotional maturation is happening ahead of schedule?

According to biologist/ecologist Sandra Steingraber's 2007 book The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls, puberty is happening earlier and earlier for girls in North America. "It's now the opinion of most endocrinologists... the falling age of puberty among U.S. girls is a real and ongoing phenomenon," she says. "Girls get their first period, on average, a few months earlier than 40 years ago, but they get their breasts one to two years earlier," says Steingraber.

"Normal" puberty begins for girls between the ages of eight and 13 and can take one and a half to six years to complete. Physical changes include a growth spurt, breast development, pubic hair and first menstruation. A child can be said to be experiencing early puberty if some of these developments are occurring earlier than eight years of age -- at six or seven, for example.

The reasons behind early puberty in girls are currently unknown, though many theories have been put forth. One study published in 2010 suggested obesity is a contributing factor, while other theories point the finger at exposure to chemicals in plastics like phthalates, bisphenol A and phytoestrogens, growth hormones in milk or even absent fathers.

Regardless of why it might be happening, if your child is going through early puberty, there are things you can do to help her cope. (Or help him cope -- although there's less evidence boys are hitting puberty earlier, it certainly does happen).

Psychologist and family counsellor Lesley Lacny says early puberty can make a confusing time even more difficult for children, because they will likely be experiencing it in isolation of their peers, and the physical changes can be quite obvious to others.

"It's important that parents are a strong support to help their child to understand what's happening and to support them in the feelings and issues that may result from a changing body," she says.

Lacny says parents need to talk openly with their child about puberty and the changes they can expect, preferably early, well before your child is likely to experience them.

"Keep watch for the signs and find age-appropriate ways to explain to them what is happening," says Lacny. "Access tools and resources that will help guide you in how to find the right language and help you to understand what your child may be experiencing -- books, counselling support, etc."

In some cases, the early onset of puberty can be a sign of an underlying medical condition, says Lacny, so it's important to rule this out by visiting a paediatrician.

"Discuss with your doctor the possibility of external factors contributing to the early onset, such as obesity and components of your child's diet, and to determine if any lifestyle changes are needed to support healthy development and the needs of your child's changing body," she says. When talking to your child about the confusing experience they're going through, Lacny says you should also reassure your child that going through puberty is normal and although they may be going through it earlier than their peers, eventually everyone goes through it.

"Encourage a positive attitude about their changing body and help them to feel good about the changes that are happening," she says. "While encouraging a positive perspective around the changes, it's also important to allow your child to express their worries and to prepare them for any challenges that may occur as a result. Keep the lines of communication open, don't wait for them to bring it up, check in with them regularly."

Because early puberty can cause emotional distress to a child, Lacny advises parents keep an eye out for signs of depression or teasing from peers.

"Create an environment that supports your child in feeling like they can talk about it. If you're feeling uncomfortable with the discussion, this can contribute to increased discomfort for your child," she says. "Find out what the school is teaching and be sure to fill in the gaps. Talk to the teacher about what your child is going through and have them keep watch for any difficulties that may be surfacing at school or with peers."

And if your child is having a difficult time with early puberty and you feel unable to help them get through it, seek help, says Lacny.

"If needed, access parenting support through counselling and determine if your child could benefit from having a counsellor to speak with," she says. "Children may not always feel comfortable discussing their feelings with their parents and it's important they have an outlet to express these feelings with someone they can trust."