Bridging the gap between Puberty and Maturity
“They grow up so much faster these days”
A familiar grandparental lament and there is plenty of evidence to support this perspective. Two significant studies in the last 6 years (American Journal of Pediatrics and American Academy of Pediatrics) have indicated the earlier onset of puberty in our children.
There is a lot of debate and numerous theories proposed as to what may lie at the root cause of this. The rise in childhood obesity tends to arise as both the most common and arguably most compelling culprit. But rather than debating the cause, perhaps more pertinent questions are: what does it really mean, does it matter and how should we handle it?
Puberty ≠ Adolescence
What do we really mean by ‘growing up?’ The physical development in puberty is not the same as the emotional (and sexual) development of adolescence or as put more succinctly by Philip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy – “just because a boy has developed pubic hair doesn’t mean he’s ready for the leap, sorry to be vulgar – from Lego to legover”.
If puberty is arriving earlier, is it inevitable that adolescence will play catch up to ensure the gap between the two doesn’t widen or should society be responding appropriately to ensure that it does?
The premature curtailing of childhood
There is also substantial evidence to suggest that as well as ‘physical childhood’ being ended earlier with the arrival of puberty, there are other social and cultural influences curtailing the ‘psychosocial childhood’ of our children i.e. we are rushing them into adolescence too. David Elkind, professor of child study, Senior Resident Scholar at Tufts University has written extensively on the dangers of shortening childhood: “Our society is compressing childhood more and more to where children are not children for very long,” he says. “Children are under tremendous pressure to ‘be mature’ and to ‘grow up’ when they have not had the chance to develop emotional maturity.” He indicates 4 major factors in this:
- Pressures put on children by the media to be more grown up.
- Competitive pressures on children to perform and achieve rather than just be and play.
- News ad nauseum – frightening and alarming news stories round the clock that children struggle to appreciate are often extraordinary and remote events.
- Latch key kids – more children being left to fend for themselves at an earlier age – forcing them to take on adult responsibilities.
Surely childhood is an important time for trying out and learning the skills that need to be mastered for adulthood? There is an inevitable sequential nature to this – it should be completed in appropriate stages when children have the right level of emotional maturity, often through play and with the support and comfort of their adult carers. There are no shortcuts regardless of the timing of their physical changes. Rushing them risks leaving them ill equipped, without the necessary tools in their social/emotional toolbag to develop into confident, self assured adults.
Managing the gap
But if there is (or rather should be) a growing lag between earlier puberty and adolescence, how should we manage this? As Dr Robert Scott-Jupp, consultant paediatrician at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health points out, there are some real practical issues that earlier onset of puberty brings with it: "It's a practical problem for young girls who start their periods while they're still at primary school age. They're not very well set up, there's not much privacy. There's also the important educational aspect, that girls need to be educated about puberty at an earlier age so they're not taken by surprise."
Research by children’s toiletries brand, Scrubbington’s makes a similar point about tackling the problems of earlier body odour in primary school aged children and how social pressures and taboos can make it difficult for parents to support their children through this. Their founder, Emma Cranstoun explains “when we were researching initial product ideas in focus groups, parents would often take us to one side after we’d finished and ask us if we’d thought of doing a deodorant because their 8 year old was already starting to smell a bit after physical activities and whilst they didn’t want them teased in the changing room, they equally didn’t feel comfortable handing them a can of Lynx”. Their response was to develop a bespoke natural, children’s deodorant, packaged very much as part of their range rather than with any adult connotations and also to put a natural de-odouriser into their washing products so children can be protected from body odour before they or their parents feel ready to use a deodorant.
If this earlier physical maturity is an inevitability; then rather than piling on unnecessary pressure to grow up fast, maybe the role of brands and the media should be in providing thoughtful solutions to calmly deal with the practicalities of earlier puberty in a manner that is appropriate for who and what they still are i.e. children?