What does it mean to be an "early bloomer" or "late bloomer"?

You might know intuitively. The terms may call to mind self-conscious tweens at pool parties, an unexpected -- or long anticipated -- first period, and the embarrassment of standing out.

But there is actually a medical standard for what counts as an early, typical, or delayed onset of puberty. Puberty for girls typically begins between ages 8 and 13. So when a girl begins puberty before her eighth birthday, it’s considered “precocious puberty,” and if a girl has turned thirteen with no signs of puberty, this is considered “late puberty.” 

What’s the impact of early or late puberty? As a parent, should you be concerned?

First of all, language like “early bloomer” and “late bloomer” can imply that there’s one “right” time to bloom, and that your child might be arriving too soon or too late. But normal development occurs across a range of ages, with variability based on many factors. Try to keep in mind that your daughter is going to grow into the body that she’s meant to have, on the timeline that’s right for her!

It’s understandable you may be concerned about the timing of your daughter’s puberty if it seems out of sync with peers -- so always check in with her pediatrician, who will be monitoring her growth and looking out for any signs of a medical cause for early or late puberty. But try to remember that there’s usually no need for medical concern or treatment. Your daughter is likely just developing on her own unique schedule.

However, even if there are no medical problems at its source, being an early or late bloomer may impact your daughter socially and emotionally. Here’s what to keep in mind:

For girls who develop earlier, the transition can be fraught.

It’s normal for young people to desperately want to fit in. If you’re the first in your grade to experience the physical changes of puberty, it can be isolating to stand out among friends and peers who still appear childlike. 

Girls experiencing early puberty also appear physically older than where they are in their emotional and cognitive development. This can be challenging if others make assumptions based on external appearance that don’t match up with how the girl thinks or acts. Early developers may be sexualized and treated as emerging adults earlier than they are prepared for at their age.

In the research, early puberty in girls has been linked to higher rates of emotional problems like depression and anxiety, eating disorders, earlier sexual activity, substance use, and more risk-taking behaviors. Girls may compare themselves more negatively to peers, feel more anxious and less confident, and hang out with others who engage in risky activities.

And girls who develop on the late side face challenges too. Research suggests that girls who develop later than peers are also at risk for psychological distress and behavior problems. 

Why is early or late puberty a risk factor? Early or late bloomers may be teased, feel self-conscious, be treated as younger or older than they are, struggle with body image, and experience stress related to standing out. Researchers have also hypothesized that developing on the most common timeline allows girls to anticipate, prepare for, and better cope with the changes of puberty. Early and late bloomers may be more likely to be caught off guard by changes and therefore feel insecure and stressed. 

How can you support your early or late bloomer?
  • Prepare her early.
The changes during puberty can be distressing if your daughter doesn’t understand what she is experiencing. An early bloomer in particular may be confused, embarrassed, scared, or anxious because she doesn’t know what’s happening to her body. Her school may not teach about puberty until she gets older, if they do at all. Try educating your daughter from a young age, in clear and age-appropriate terms, about the changes she will go through to become an adult. Early preparation is protective -- she can better cope if she knows what to expect and understands that it’s normal when her body begins to change.
  • Normalize her unique path.
As her parent, you can emphasize to your daughter that the changes she’s undergoing in puberty, their timing, and their speed are normal. You can emphasize how much diversity there is in body shapes and in how bodies grow. Make it clear that her development and her timeline are just right for her. Early bloomers and late bloomers may feel shame and embarrassment about standing out -- normalizing their experiences can help soothe their stress and encourage self-acceptance. 
  • Bolster her coping skills.
Experiencing early or late puberty can be a stressor and a challenge for your daughter. Like with any other challenges she may face, she will be buffered from some of the risks if she has strong coping skills. Helping her cultivate resilience, the ability to regulate her emotions, and problem-solving skills will be protective in puberty -- and in all areas of her life! Want suggestions for how to do so? These three episodes of our podcast are a great place to start.
  • Keep your focus on the internal.
As with any struggle related to body image, one of your most powerful moves as a parent can be supporting your daughter’s developing sense of self worth outside of her appearance. Keep your compliments and praise focused on her insides, not her outsides. Encourage her to figure out what she cares about and feels good doing. If your daughter feels secure about who she is and doesn’t judge or evaluate herself based on her appearance, she’ll be better prepared to handle the ups and downs in body image that can arrive with puberty.

Sources:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352827319303544

https://www.bradley.edu/sites/bodyproject/sexuality/puberty/

https://raisingchildren.net.au/pre-teens/development/puberty-sexual-development/puberty-early-or-late

http://cincinnatifamilymagazine.com/development/means-early-bloomer

https://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/03/puberty

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232503692_Shortand_long-term_consequences_of_early_versus_late_physical_maturation_in_adolescents