NASHVILLE, TN -- Some girls are reaching the onset of puberty at an earlier age than in the past, according to a new study; and parents and churches can play key roles in helping such girls mature emotionally and spiritually, Christian experts say.
The study, which appears in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics, examined 1,239 girls ages 6 to 8 and found that 10 percent of whites, 23 percent of blacks and 15 percent of Hispanic girls had breast development by age 7.
Earlier development, the researchers said, puts girls at higher risk for behavioral problems as adolescents and for breast cancer as adults. The risk of cancer increases with a longer lifetime exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
The study offered some possibilities for the cause, noting that body mass index played a role, with heavier girls developing breasts sooner. Hormone-disrupting chemicals in the environment also could be to blame.
Bill Cutrer, professor of Christian ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, provided Baptist Press insights about various aspects of the study.
The obstetrician/gynecologist explained that fatty tissue makes estrone, a weak estrogen, so young girls with a tendency toward obesity would develop breast changes sooner. It is a phenomenon observed primarily in industrialized nations, he said, adding that in third world countries where malnutrition is rampant, girls develop later on.
He also said it was important to note that the age of menstruation has not changed, so whatever has contributed to earlier breast development "hasn't seemed to alter that part [menstruation] of the pubertal clock."
But Cutrer said the study is credible and has implications for ministry.
"Some of the references cited in this Pediatrics article found an association between earlier maturation and lower self esteem, worse body image, eating problems, suicide attempts, depression, influence by 'deviant peers,' earlier sex and earlier norm breaking behaviors," Cutrer said.
Churches can help girls appreciate themselves as made in the image of God and help them view their bodies as gifts and use them as temporary vessels for His glory, he said. It's also important to have conversations with boys about how to interact with girls.
"If the boys can learn to treat young girls with respect and not sexualize and objectify them (as society tends to do) perhaps the girls can mature in a more healthy fashion and avoid all those terrible consequences," Cutrer said.
Pediatrician offices can assist parents in preparing their children for the onset of adolescence, he said, and doctors and nurses in churches can help.
"Our youth leaders simply must know this stuff and act aggressively to prevent the early bloomer from being ostracized, isolated, intimidated or belittled," Cutrer said.
Christian youth experts contacted by Baptist Press agreed with Cutrer's views about the spiritual impact of the study's findings.
Jimmy Hester, cofounder of the True Love Waits movement, said laying a proper spiritual foundation in a child's life is important for equipping them to make wise sexual decisions as their bodies mature.
"As children grow in their understanding of Creator God who designed us as sexual beings and whose plan for us is to remain sexually abstinent until marriage, they develop a Christian worldview that equips them to confront sexual challenges," Hester told BP. "As this study indicates, one of those challenges is how our society deals with entering puberty at an early age."
Parents need to be proactive at challenging cultural norms, especially in the lives of their sons, Hester said.
"The misconceptions and deviant practices of how to treat members of the opposite sex portrayed in movies, on television and through other forms of media creates the need to teach teenage boys how to treat girls no matter what their age," Hester said. "Girls maturing at a younger age will naturally call attention to themselves and heighten boys' interests. That makes it important for parents (especially fathers) to help their sons deal with their feelings and teach them how to respectfully treat younger girls."
Rebecca Ingram Powell, who speaks regularly to tween girls at Pure In Heart conferences, said the Pediatrics study highlights a growing problem.
"We should view with great concern the fact that our girls are being stripped of their 'little girlness,' however, the early development of breast tissue is not the real culprit here," Powell told BP. "Our society is. Parents and the culture prematurely introduce adult topics, assuming kids have adult feelings.
"Unfortunately, the early development of breasts in our sex-saturated culture will cause girls to be confused about their own maturity, and it will cause both same-age peers and older kids to be confused as well. It is a scary time to be raising kids," she said. "We have to talk with them about sexuality often before we, as parents, are ready to. But it is necessary for their own safety, in many cases."
Girls are receiving daily doses of teen life on television from outlets such as Disney and Nickelodeon, Powell said, which means they are being exposed to boyfriend-girlfriend relationships and drama.
"They are thinking about these things at very early ages. We need to stay true to God's Word in our ministries and focus on loving girls and their families and sharing His truth with them," she said. "We need to channel girls' natural propensity toward relationships into servant actions, making those relationship connections by serving our communities and world."
Powell emphasized the role a father can play in developing a healthy body image in his daughter.
"I cannot stress enough the importance of Dad's role here. Dad is the first man in a girl's life. He is the first one she wants to please. He sets the standard," Powell said.
"No matter what her body looks like or how she feels, Dad's love and approval must be unconditional. Often we see a dad begin to back up when his little girl's body begins to develop. That is really the opposite of what he should do," she said. "He needs to press in to that relationship and help her understand the value she has as God's creation and, of course, as Daddy's little girl -- always."
Fathers should spend time with their daughters and use words to edify them as well as pray for their girls as they navigate adolescence, Powell, author of "Season of Change: Parenting Your Middle Schooler with Passion and Purpose," said.