NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Some
girls are reaching the onset of puberty at an earlier age than in the past,
according to a new study; and parents and churches can play key roles in helping
such girls mature emotionally and spiritually, Christian experts say.
The study, which appears in
the August issue of the journal Pediatrics, examined 1,239 girls ages 6 to 8
and found that 10 percent of whites, 23 percent of blacks and 15 percent of
Hispanic girls had breast development by age 7.
Earlier development, the
researchers said, puts girls at higher risk for behavioral problems as
adolescents and for breast cancer as adults. The risk of cancer increases with
a longer lifetime exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
Bill Cutrer, professor of
Christian ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said early puberty
onset is more prevalent in heavier girls.
obstetrician/gynecologist explained that fatty tissue makes estrone, a weak
estrogen, so young girls with a tendency toward obesity would develop breast
It is a phenomenon observed
primarily in industrialized nations, he said, adding that in third world
countries where malnutrition is rampant, girls develop later.
He also said it was
important to note that the age of menstruation has not changed, so whatever has
contributed to earlier breast development “hasn’t seemed to alter that part
(menstruation) of the pubertal clock.”
Cutrer said the study has implications
“Some of the references
cited in this Pediatrics article found an association between earlier
maturation and lower self esteem, worse body image, eating problems, suicide
attempts, depression, influence by ‘deviant peers,’ earlier sex and earlier
norm breaking behaviors,” Cutrer said.
Churches can help girls
appreciate themselves as made in the image of God and help them view their
bodies as gifts and use them as temporary vessels for His glory, he said.
It’s also important to have
conversations with boys about how to interact with girls.
“If the boys can learn to
treat young girls with respect and not sexualize and objectify them (as society
tends to do) perhaps the girls can mature in a more healthy fashion and avoid
all those terrible consequences,” Cutrer said.
“Our youth leaders simply
must know this stuff and act aggressively to prevent the early bloomer from
being ostracized, isolated, intimidated or belittled,” Cutrer said.
“Girls maturing at a younger
age will naturally call attention to themselves and heighten boys’ interests.
That makes it important for parents (especially fathers) to help their sons
deal with their feelings and teach them how to respectfully treat younger
girls,” said Jimmy Hester, developer of the “True Love Waits” campaign.