Some children will be taller, some will be more developed, some boys will have changing voices while others won’t. “This is all a normal part of going through adolescence, but it might seem a little more sudden,” Dr. Josefson said.
Families should talk with children about how these changes are normal, about how everyone’s body changes, but not in unison. Dr. Coble suggested, “start with the basics, how are you eating, how are you sleeping?”
If your children have been truly isolated, think about helping them ease back in — perhaps by encouraging them to spend socially distanced time outside with one good friend. Pandemic or no pandemic, children and families need reliable information about puberty. Dr. Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital and an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine, sends families to Amaze.org, which has videos aimed at kids, and to the Healthy Bodies Toolkit site developed by Vanderbilt University.
Even in nonpandemic times, life is often harder for early developers, who remain emotionally and intellectually the same age as their peers, but who may look significantly older. Dr. Carol Ford, a professor of pediatrics and division chief of adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said that the children who develop early always need more support, and that may be particularly true now, when the changes may be starker after an interval away. Parents need to be ready to have concrete and detailed conversations about issues like personal hygiene (yes, your sweat starts to smell different) and the developments still to come (menstruation, wet dreams).
Some adolescent specialists have raised questions about whether the emotional intensity of lockdown and the pandemic year may actually have contributed to early puberty; Dr. Spinks-Franklin said, “I’ve had quite a few of my girls start their periods during the pandemic.” She has wondered whether stress has had something to do with that, or whether it is just regular development.
One preliminary analysis out of Italy that was published in March suggested that referrals for early puberty in girls were significantly increased during the first six months of the pandemic, compared to the same six-month period of 2019. From March to September of 2020, 246 children, almost all girls, were referred to Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital in Rome to be evaluated for suspected precocious puberty, compared to 118 during the same months of 2019. The authors raised questions about the possible links to stress, higher caloric intake and increased screen use, to be addressed with further research.
If you think your child might be developing too early, schedule an appointment for an in-person checkup, and ask their pediatrician to discuss issues of puberty and body image. After the 10-year-old’s mother brought up the subject, Dr. McFadden talked with her patient, reinforcing the message that the body changes of puberty are normal and healthy. She talked with the mother about speaking with the child’s teachers, “so there will be a cadre of folks looking out for her as she re-emerges into in-person school.” And she and the mother discussed the risks that can attend early development in girls, who may be taken for older than they are, or preyed upon.