People have been saying for years that children are growing up too fast, but research shows that in industrialised countries girls are reaching puberty earlier with one in eight girls in the UK starting their periods while still at primary school.
Why should this matter to youth workers? Because research has also shown that girls who reach puberty early are more likely to truant from school and to get lower grades. This report in the Times Educational Supplement says,
'A recent wide-ranging review of scientific studies concluded that while late puberty “has been associated with higher grades… Early maturing girls are more likely to exhibit poor academic performance in high school than on-time or later maturing peers. These adolescent trends in achievement generate differences in career and income level that persist through adulthood.”
For example, in a sample of girls who reached puberty before the age of 11, only 2 per cent pursued higher education, irrespective of their intelligence or parent’s level of education. However, the fact that they had an older than usual social network turned out to be an important factor.'
Some of that is because the changes that come with puberty - weight gain, mood swings and spots - can be difficult for young girls to deal with. Young children who look and feel more mature can also hang out with older children and may feel a need to prove themselves by acting older. The report goes on to say 'A growing body of research is finding that girls maturing earlier are more likely to become depressed, delinquent, aggressive, socially withdrawn and suffer sleep problems, start drinking, smoking, or drug abuse, have lower self-esteem and suicide attempts.' So extra support, guidance and help from youth workers who are aware of the issues - as well as parents and schools - could make all the difference.