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What Is Precocious Puberty?

Most of us can recall how difficult and confusing puberty was, and especially the end of that transitory time: getting your first period. But can you imagine going through that awkward process in first grade? For a growing number of today's young girls, this is a reality. A recent New York Times piece explores "precocious puberty," a term being used for the growing percentage of girls entering puberty by age 7.

Typically, the stages of puberty for girls begin with breast growth, followed by pubic hair growth, and then ending with a first period. What researchers are finding is that breast growth is beginning earlier and earlier, but the first period average is staying pretty consistent at 12 years old. While possible factors for this precocious puberty include obesity, environmental toxins, and stress, it is interesting that the percentages vary so much by race. These early bloomers — or girls developing breasts by 7 — made up of 23 percent of black girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls, 10 percent of white girls, and 2 percent of Asian girls. The cause of this disparity hasn't yet been fully explored. Is it genetics? Are there environmental issues to be taken into account?

Clearly, there's a lot more research to be done, as it seems like there are more questions than answers when it comes to what causes precocious puberty, its long-term effects, and whether it should be treated as a disorder. There are risks associated with early periods, such as depression, stunted growth, and breast cancer, but when it comes to psychological issues, it's a gray area. Is it easier for a young girl entering puberty to be treated as if there's something wrong with her, taking medications to halt puberty until she can better deal with it? Or is it better for her parents to treat it as "normal," and help her cope with the changes? And what happens when a 10-year-old girl has the brain of a fifth grader and the body of a high schooler?

Were you a late or early bloomer? Share your puberty stories — for better or worse — in the comments.

Source: Thinkstock
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