Not Yet A Woman
People who keep track of pop culture, youth, psychology, and sociology have been remarking for years now about the trend of age compression - teens and kids having experiences and access to information that previously only older kids or teens would experience or have access to. For example, middle schoolers today experience and have access to information that only a high schooler would experience or know maybe 5-10 years ago.
The challenge this poses for parents and youth ministers is that our tweens are experiencing more mature scenarios and having access to more mature information, but they are still just kids; We have a generation of kids that truly are growing up too fast and having to deal with circumstances that a teen or adult has the psychological maturity to navigate through, but these kids don't yet have the same skills and mental development to handle.
Now, a study led by Dr. Frank Biro of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center shows that the physical onset of puberty is also going through a rather dramatic age compression. According to the study "at age 7, about 10 percent of white girls and 23 percent of black girls had started developing breasts, compared to 5 percent of white girls and 15 percent of black girls in 1997."
Puberty and age compression are a reality and researchers are trying to figure out what is causing the puberty compression. Another recent study suggests that the dramatic rise in childhood obesity we keep hearing about plays a role. Some research suggests the chemicals found in plastics and other food related products like fertilizers could be affecting the early onset of puberty.
Another concern is the psychological effects of the early onset of puberty. According to Dr. Bira in a Health.com article, "These girls (who begin puberty earlier) have been linked to poor self-esteem, eating disorders, depression, as well as cigarette and alcohol use and earlier sexual activity."
So what do we do about it? Us adults are used to a certain look equating with a certain level of social and psychological maturity that just doesn't apply anymore. We need to recognize these facts and adjust our perspective on what it means to be a teen, tween, or young adult. Our middle schoolers and even high schoolers may look ready and want to be ready to be treated with more responsibility and maturity, but they aren't ready according to Dr. Bira. We have to remember, even to the chagrin of our t[w]eens that they are still kids and we need to protect their psychological and social development - making sure that we aren't contributing to the age and puberty compression of our kids. As youth ministers, we should keep all of this in mind when we are interacting with and planning for our middle schoolers and high schoolers so that we are still maintaining age appropriate standards.
Parents, Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a CBS Medical correspondant, suggests focusing on making sure your kids have a healthy diet and nutrition and if your daughter has signs of early puberty, take her to a doctor. She says that early puberty is not the "new normal."