Puberty is an expected part of development that causes many changes in the body. During this time, children mature and develop into adults.

It’s common to experience a few bumps in the road during this transition. But, in general, it’s a fairly smooth process, give or take a few growth spurts, sprouting hairs, acne breakouts, and menstrual cycles.

For kids with central precocious puberty (CPP), however, starting puberty at an unusually young age and often several years before their peers may take a toll on their emotional and mental health. They may experience:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • body image issues
  • low self-esteem

Here’s what you need to know about the emotional and mental impact of CPP and what you can do to help.

CPP is a condition that causes the process of puberty to start at a very early age.

Puberty symptoms in a boy younger than 9 years old or a girl younger than 8 years old may indicate CPP, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).

Signs of puberty, regardless of age, include:

  • growth spurts
  • acne
  • body odor
  • underarm and pubic hair
  • deepening voice in boys
  • breast development and the start of menstruation in girls
  • enlargement of the testicles and penis in boys

The exact reason some kids start puberty early is not known. However, experts believe that in children with CPP, the brain signals the hypothalamus to begin releasing gonadotropin hormone-releasing hormone (GnRH) earlier than it should.

The cause of this is often unknown. But in some cases, CPP may stem from health problems that occur in the brain, such as:

  • a brain tumor
  • trauma
  • infections
  • other brain abnormalities
  • radiation to the brain, such as cancer treatment

CPP is more common in girls than boys. Much of the existing research pertains to the psychological and emotional health of girls.

Language matters

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “girl” and “boy” to refer to a person’s sex assigned at birth, but that may not align with the person’s gender identity.

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CPP can affect a child’s emotional health in addition to their physical health. Children with CPP may be too young to fully understand the changes they’re experiencing. Early signs of puberty can lead to increased feelings of shame, embarrassment, frustration, or insecurity in both boys and girls.

Reaching puberty early can trigger a lot of emotions in children, especially when it happens before their peers, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD).

Children with CPP may experience significant behavioral, social, and emotional problems. They may also face different social pressures of fitting in since their bodies develop before kids of a similar age.

A 2019 study found that an increase in depressive symptoms seems to be associated with physical changes that emerge early in the pubertal transition, especially for girls who mature earlier than their peers.

For example, those who get their period early and develop breasts sooner may experience embarrassment and confusion, especially in elementary school when the majority of their peers are not going through puberty.

A 2017 literature review found that girls with CPP may also experience mood swings and irritability, which can interfere with peer and family relationships. Researchers also point out that girls with CPP deal with the fear of comments from peers. Together, these feelings may increase isolation and social withdrawal.

Findings from a 2019 study suggest early puberty may be a risk factor for mental health disorders. One reason for this, according to the study, is that children who mature physically at a younger age may not have the mental or emotional maturity to deal with the social challenges and stressors that can come with appearing older than they actually are. For instance, an early sex drive can cause problems if a child becomes sexually active before they are mentally or emotionally ready.

Moreover, research from a 2018 study suggests that earlier ages of first menstruation were associated with higher rates of behavioral issues and depressive symptoms in early to middle adulthood. Behavioral issues may include:

  • shoplifting
  • property damage
  • running away from home
  • lying to parents

According to the researchers, this continuation of mental health and behavioral issues into adulthood may have happened because the difficulties that started in adolescence did not diminish over time. Behavioral issues tend to lessen as the person ages, however, and their effects were relatively modest and smaller in magnitude than the effects of the depression symptoms.

Helping your child during early puberty is critical. Not only do they rely on you for support and guidance, but sometimes kids just need someone to listen to them when they are scared, confused, and unsure about themselves.

Here are some things you can do to help your child.

Research CPP and build a team of healthcare professionals

Because CPP affects young children, one role you have is to learn about the condition so that you can be your child’s advocate. You can seek information from your child’s doctor or join a support group for parents of children with CPP.

In addition, addressing CPP often requires a team effort. If you notice signs of early puberty in your child, talk with their primary care doctor, likely a pediatrician. They can refer you to specialists and help you build your child’s healthcare team. In addition to a pediatrician, this support and treatment team may consist of an endocrinologist, mental health professional, school counselor, school nurse, and other caregivers.

Seek help early

One of the best things you can do for your child is to seek help early. Make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician once you notice symptoms of CPP.

According to a 2019 caregiver survey, minimizing the time between symptom onset and treatment can have a positive impact on a child’s psychological and health-related quality of life.

Talk with your child

It’s important to understand that many social and emotional factors present with CPP are a normal part of adolescence and the teenage years. That’s why it’s critical you make time to talk with your child about the changes they’re facing.

Providing a safe space to express how they feel can help minimize some of the stress and confusion they may be experiencing.

Bring mental and emotional health concerns to your child’s doctor

It can be challenging to discern between regular childhood ups and downs and the more serious emotional or mental health effects of CPP, so it’s always a good idea to bring your concerns and questions to your child’s pediatrician.

The emotional struggles many kids experience with CPP are real. However, experts caution against this being the sole reason for treating CPP and say that more research is needed regarding the risk of psychological effects in children with CPP. Talk with your child’s doctor about CPP treatment options for your child.

If your child needs help dealing with the emotional impact of puberty, you can ask their doctor to recommend a mental health professional to help them learn coping skills.

CPP can cause physical and emotional issues for kids. Children with CPP see their bodies changing sooner than their peers.

They also feel pressure to fit in, while at the same time, they’re trying to maneuver puberty at a much younger age.

Some kids will experience depression and anxiety, while others may face body image issues and low self-esteem.

If you notice signs of puberty in a girl under age 8 or a boy younger than age 9, make an appointment with your child’s doctor.

A doctor can do a thorough physical exam and discuss treatment options that may help delay puberty until the right age, if necessary. They can also make a referral to a mental health expert if needed.