If Puberty Is Happening Up to 2 Years Earlier in Boys, What Are the Implications?

An article in today’s New York Times cites a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics that suggests boys are showing signs of puberty between six months and two years earlier than in previous research. Historically, 11-½ was the general age puberty began in boys.

The article asks more questions than it answers. The causes are uncertain. Possibilities the Academy mentions (but are unproven) are changes in diet, less physical activity and other environmental factors.

The article ends with equal uncertainty about the implications for boys.

Some experts said that while earlier development in girls can be worrisome because girls may be treated as more socially mature than they are, implications for boys are uncertain.

“With girls, the first signs are obvious, and social ramifications are much more pronounced and they’re negative,” said Dr. William P. Adelman, associate professor of pediatrics at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., and a member of the Academy of Pediatrics committee on adolescents. But early-maturing boys “get called on more in school, tend to be better athletes. I’m less likely to get a parent of a boy saying, ‘Oh my gosh, my boy’s developing — he’s too young,’ ” Dr. Adelman said. More common is, “My boy, he’s a freshman in high school, his best friend is 6 feet already and he’s 4-11.”

Dr. Frank M. Biro, a puberty researcher and director of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, said there are some common implications for girls and boys.

“If kids are looking older, it means that parents should be monitoring them, because that superego doesn’t kick in until late teens or early 20s,” he said. “The kids need a hand. Know what they’re doing.”

The last paragraph reminds us of one of the very first articles to appear on The Good Men Project site. Called “Out of Sync”, it was a family’s struggle with a son who had gone through puberty at age 9. At that time, it was named as a disorder that the doctors called “central precocious puberty.” The article begins:

“Never underestimate the power of testosterone,” the endocrinologist told us. His tone was grave, no longer the there’s-nothing-to-worry-about jocularity he’d had when Alex was in the room, laughing and making jokes about successful short men. Now came the warnings, told in the prophesying gloom of a medical oracle. The pediatric specialist left and returned quickly with two chairs that he placed beside the examination table. We sat, my husband and I, the parents of the boy who exhibited symptoms of age beyond his years.

The doctor leaned against the counter. He was Michael J. Fox-short, confident despite his stature. He paused to look me straight in the eye, as if I would doubt his words unless he stared very firmly at me. “Do not, under any circumstances, ever leave your son alone with a girl,” he said, writing on his clipboard as he talked. “There could be serious consequences. A big complicated embarrassing mess that could affect his whole life. And yours. He can get a girl pregnant. He will not hesitate if given the opportunity.”

I laughed. Had he just said that my 9-year-old boy could get a girl pregnant?

The entire story is here. The experience with their son was not something the parents went through lightly. And yet, if 9 years of age for puberty becomes the new norm, as the new study suggests it might, what then? The parents in the above article were warned of “sex, aggression and rage” and told, “You may want to consider therapy.”  The mother and father looked at the doctors in disbelief. Will there be a generation of parents being told the same thing?

All the more reason for open, honest communication about difficult issues as early as possible.

photo: nophoto4jojo / flickr

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Comments

  1. I read this NYTimes piece yesterday bemused-
    While we delay the trappings of adulthood further back with laws- Driver’s Licenses & Drinking Age – with cultural attitudes – helicopter hyper organized parenting & codification of actions; Nature Trumps us and pushes back.

    And for the record I’m of the opinion that in addition to the exterior chemical
    , ie hormones in foods and overall better, or more, nutrition influence on earlier puberty cultural influences are causing this phenomenon.

  2. Some experts said that while earlier development in girls can be worrisome because girls may be treated as more socially mature than they are, implications for boys are uncertain.
    So let me get this straight.

    They can tell that earlier development in girls is worrisome because they may be treated more socially mature than they are but when it comes to boys they are just scratching their heads in uncertainty?

    Is it really that hard to recognize the implications that boys developing sooner would include some of the very same worries that apply to girls?

    (Off the top of my head I can imagine this making it even harder to take sex crimes against young boys seriously.)

  3. “Some experts said that while earlier development in girls can be worrisome because girls may be treated as more socially mature than they are, implications for boys are uncertain.
    “With girls, the first signs are obvious, and social ramifications are much more pronounced and they’re negative,”

    As psychologists, we are early trained in the implications of a girl being socially treated as far more mature than both her chronological and mental age. And the worries that the above quote refer to, have been subject of countless research and discussions for many years. Meaning: possible and usual effects of early biological maturing in girls is not clinically unfamiliar. Instead of scratching heads, what research does is foresee issues that can become more and more frequent. It means revising what was taught in universities and many books. Means updating to a less investigated subject, such as a boy reaching puberty at nine as a phenomena that could get to be the norm. Not omitting here, that girls reaching puberty even earlier than nowadays, is just as much a cause for concern and revision in terms of how society will relate to this child. And vice versa. It’s of high pycho-sociological importance.

    • As psychologists, we are early trained in the implications of a girl being socially treated as far more mature than both her chronological and mental age.
      That’s part of what I’m talking about. Supposedly when it comes to medical knowledge it was all about men. Yet when issues about men (and boys) comes up it’s uncertain.

      Don’t get me wrong I’m glad these questions are being asked and the research is being done. It just bothers me that these questions are just being asked now in face of the idea that medical knowledge has been all about boys and men in the first place. I have a bit of a problem with being told that girls and women are left hanging in these issues while at the same time we get articles like this where it’s pretty evident that that is not always the case.

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