Early Puberty and Depression: Tips for Guiding Younger Girls Through Body Changes

Sad lonely girl sitting on stairsWhat used to be a rite of passage for girls entering their teenage years is now occurring more frequently at younger ages, which can make it developmentally and emotionally challenging for many.

According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, the average age of puberty in females now occurs around third and fourth grades, which is generally eight to nine years old. Twenty-five years ago, the average age was 12.

Amanda Armstrong, MA, LCPC, is a child out-patient therapist with Memorial Behavioral Health at the Springfield Children’s Center in Springfield, Illinois. She sees firsthand how early puberty can affect some girls and how communication is key in combating depression.

“Females who start puberty earlier may experience many conflicting feelings, in part because their mental age doesn’t match their physical age,” Armstrong said. “They may be rushing through developmental milestones and feeling confused about all the changes in how their body feels and looks.”

The tougher-to-spot symptoms of puberty can include changes in sleep patterns or eating habits due to the body growing and changing as well as physical aches and pains, especially stomach issues.

Signs of depression can include withdrawal, self-negativity, loss of interest in favorite things, increased irritability or lashing out and/or feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness when things don’t work out perfectly.

Armstrong cautions that parents will often notice their child acting differently than normal but then attribute it to “going through a phase” or ‘having a bad day.” Emphasizing parent-child communication during these transitions can often help lessen stress.

Here’s how to do it:
• Ask questions in a casual way, and also encourage questions about what’s happening physically.
• Share information about what’s ahead to normalize the situation.
• Recognize symptoms of depression and develop a safety plan that includes coping resources.

“The best thing you can do is educate yourself, and then educate your girl on what occurs during puberty and what to expect,” Armstrong added.

Armstrong-Amanda Amanda Armstrong, MA, LCPC, is a child out-patient therapist with Memorial Behavioral Health—Springfield Children’s Center, a part of Memorial Health System. She graduated from The School of Professional Psychology at Forest Institute with a master of arts in clinical psychology.

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