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Written by:  Lillian Ferdinands, MD
Date: September 1, 2011

Tips to navigate the rollercoaster of changes
Often a mom notices her little girl's body odor first. Then the eye rolls, tears and mood swings surface. Though a mom may think her little girl is too young to be going through puberty, there's a stage that comes before the cramps and menstrual cycles; it's called pre-pubescence.

Pre-puberty typically begins in girls between 8 and 9 years old, or three to four years prior to their first period. This transitional stage allows the body to activate hormones and prepare for reproductive capabilities.

The Signs
In addition to acne, outward signs of the internal and external changes include:
  • Body odor. I refer to body odor as "stinky armpits" to help the girls understand changes that are occurring. Now's the time to reinforce daily showers, deodorant and other hygiene tips.
  • Hair growth. With an increased desire for privacy, preteens usually don't announce to parents when hair in the armpits and vaginal area sprouts; but hair development is normal during this stage.
  • Vaginal discharge. A white discharge will appear weeks to months prior to the first period.
  • Hyper hormones. When girls begin to have periods, their hormones are getting in synch — one goes up, one goes down — and a period is the result of those hormones' cycles. During pre-pubescence, the hormones are active, but not yet in synch. The discombobulated hormones are like ping-pong balls firing away, and the body doesn't know what to do. Sensitive feelings, crying, attitude problems and moodiness can all come into play.
  • Budding breasts, bellies and hips. Pre-puberty girls don't look like generic little girls anymore. I could line up 100 girls of the same height and weight, and they'd all look extremely different. Milestone changes include budding breasts, widening hips and an occasional bulging belly. Parents might feel anxious about what their daughters look like, and girls feel self-conscious, too. A positive self-image is crucial. One of the most important things parents can do is model healthy eating habits. Make sure a well-rounded, balanced food selection is available. Girls need milk, vegetables, fruit and even carbs!

What to Do
These transitional years are tough for girls. They all want to fit in, but the playing field isn't level — some girls begin pre-puberty and puberty extremely early, others are late-bloomers. There's a big difference between girls in sixth grade and eighth grade. Plus, they're trying to relate to pre-adolescent boys, who still find bathroom humor funny. Combine that with personal trials and modern society, and it's easy to see why our youth need extra assurance and guidance from their parents. Here are some tips to helping pre-pubescent girls along the way:
  • Get educated. Read about puberty (physical and emotional changes) and also stay abreast of what's going on in the lives of tweens and teens. In addition to staying connected via Charlotte Parent, visit KidsHealth.org. This section has three specific areas for parents, kids and teens. A little review will go a long way.
  • Have "The Talk" ... many times. In the past, parents would have one big sexuality talk; but I advise parents to have many sex talks, over many years. Give information along the way, and personalize and pace the conversation for your pre-teen.
  • Keep father figures upfront. A dad may think, "Girly stuff? That's not my department!" But that doesn't mean dads should pull away. Girls need a positive male role model in their lives. Dads: Continue giving hugs, enjoy daddy-daughter dates, provide one-on-one attention and stay involved in their lives.
  • Remember: Influence equals time. Between early and late adolescence, youth will try to separate from parents. That's why they are more influenced by peers than parents during this stage. The good news is that studies show they're still listening to their parents (even if they appear tuned out)!  So, continue to talk and spend time with them. Do things they like to do, inviting their friends along, too.
Nature's purpose for pre-pubescence is preparing the body for procreation. Of course, just because the body is physically ready to do something, doesn't mean the individual is emotionally ready. Be sure to talk about relationships with your children. I do see youth who are sexually active at this age, although it isn't the majority. Parents need to be aware of where their children are, and make sure adult supervision is present.

In addition to treating teens and pre-teens, I'm a mom, too. I have an adolescent son, a pre-adolescent son and a 7-year-old daughter. I've been there, am there and will be there again soon! Though pre-pubescence can feel delicate and topsy-turvy, it's also filled with opportunity and excitement for the future ... and parents are the best ones to lead and love youth through this transitional time.

Dr. Lillian Ferdinands is a pediatrician at Huntersville Pediatrics and Internal Medicine. Contact her at 704-384-8720.



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