Precocious Puberty and Youth Ministry
Research has been documenting a drop in the age of the onset of puberty, in particular for girls. Weve pointed to some of this here and here over the past year if youre interested in some of the specifics.
But beyond the general drop, theres also the phenomenon of precocious puberty. Precocious puberty (also known as premature puberty) is the appearance of secondary sexual characteristics before age 8 or the onset of menarche before age 9. What this often means is that that body is maturing far ahead of the emotional and intellectual changes that accompany adolescence. Precocious puberty has been linked with a number of health and behavioral risks.
Last weekend at the Association of Youth Ministry Educators conference, Fuller Doctor of Ministry grad Steven Bonner shared a research presentation looking at the causes of precocious puberty. Much of the publicized research has focused on genetic factors, ethnicity, pediatric obesity, environmental toxins (leading to hormonal imbalance), psychosocial stress, poverty, and exposure to sexualized society.
Whats interesting is that a number of recent studies have also pointed to familial and other ecological (or social/relational environment) factors. In particular, family stress, parental divorce, and frequent marital conflict have all been linked to the early onset of puberty. Recent studies have linked early puberty to father absence independent of weight, ethnicity, and income (factors that tend to predict precocious puberty). Other studies have found the opposite effect also holds: lower levels of ecological stress and higher levels of parental support actually predict later pubertal development of males and females.
What does this mean for our families and ministries? At the least it means some of our conversations about body changes and sexual maturation might need to start happening earlier if parents are going to be the first source of information for kids. Childrens ministries may need to begin thinking about the early onset of puberty and its implications for the ways they address the needs of kids who might begin to experience this. And as we look at the family dynamics around us, its important to be aware that high conflict, divorce, and absent fathers can all contribute to the likelihood of early puberty.
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