Teens Before Their Time

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The physical dangers of sexual harassment and sexually transmitted diseases--and, for those who start menstruating early as well, pregnancy--are only the most obvious fallout of premature development. Academic pressure, drugs and alcohol in the schools, peer pressure and sexually explicit media are all conspiring to foreshorten childhood, with consequences that are still not well understood. "One of the big shocks during the whole Clinton debacle," says William Damon, director of Stanford's Center on Adolescence, "was that people were trying to filter out phrases like 'oral sex,' when in fact there were no eight-year-olds who didn't already know what that was." One result of these influences is that girls are wearing highly sexualized, adult clothing in middle school and below--even when they don't have adult bodies.

Yet this acceleration of growing up comes precisely at a time when life should be less about Eminem and more about M&M's. Between 8 and 12, explains psychologist Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, a best-selling book on female adolescence, girls are in the so-called latency period, when they turn their backs on boys and bond with their peers--other girls. "Theoretically, it's a time when they're really gathering a lot of strength--they're doing well in sports, they're investigating the world, they're confident learners, and they're confident socially. They're marshaling their forces to be able to go into puberty."

Cultural pressure alone tends to short-circuit the latency period, when a child usually develops a sense of who she is and where she fits in the world. When a girl's body develops early, she is more likely to hook up with a boy--and leave her group of girl friends--before the developmental work of the latency period is done. "That," says Pipher, "has all sorts of harmful social, academic and psychological consequences."

Moreover, says MTV's Pinsky, early development feeds into what's already one of the toughest aspects of being a young person in the U.S. today. "Kids don't feel good about themselves," he says. "There's a pandemic of that. Society says, 'Here's how you feel good: get lots of money, look like Britney Spears, have sex, do drugs, do extreme sports.' And it works--in the moment." Eventually, though, the high wears off, and, he says, kids' self-esteem is lower than ever.

So if worried parents shouldn't medicate their prematurely pubescent daughters, what can they do? "If I had a daughter who had a period at 9," says Pipher, "I'd say, 'This does not mean you're a woman; it means you're a nine-year-old having a period, and we are going to proceed accordingly.'" That means clothing, books and music appropriate to a girl's chronological age, not her physical age. It also means having her hang out with her family, where peer pressure to act sophisticated isn't a problem. "One of the best things for a nine-year-old," says Pipher, "is having her spend a lot of time with grandparents, cousins and so on--people who value her for something besides how sexy and popular she is."

Most important, agree virtually all the experts, is that parents keep communicating with their daughters (see box). "It doesn't matter what you tell them," argues Pinsky. "Just get the dialogue going, because when they hit puberty, they'll have questions and they will ask you if they feel comfortable." Nothing is more important than that connection, he says. "It's the child that can't trust adults who is going to do whatever their biological impulses or their peers or the ambient culture suggests to them."

It was family support that got Sharon Carter safely though her bout with early puberty. "I am really very excitable," says her mom, "and I had to get all that under control and make her feel that what she was going through was normal." The result, says Sharon: "I don't remember much about all that. I couldn't go swimming when I had my period. And I still can't, and I love to swim. That's the only difference it made with me."

Angelica Andrews also has her parents watching out for her. Recently, the teenager experienced her first French kiss--but her family knew all about it, and the boy was immediately instructed not to call again until she was 16, or maybe 18. It's unfortunate that such vigilance has become necessary for the families of many 12- and 13-year-olds, whereas a generation ago, most parents could relax until a girl was 16 or 17. But as Angelica puts it, "Welcome to the 21st century."

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