Young trapped in long adolescence Earlier puberty, later adult roles pressure children

January 21, 1996|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

The tempo has been picking up for one of life's great rhythms.

Hurried along by better health and diet, the age of puberty has been steadily dropping, with many implications both for society at large and the family. Today, the average age for a girl to reach sexual maturity is 12.5, a year and a half earlier than at the beginning of the century. In 1800, the average age was 16.

Boys traditionally mature a year later than girls, and they also have been following the trend toward earlier development, with the average age of maturity dropping to 13.5.

"I think it's because of better nutrition and generally higher living standards," says Dr. Theodore A. Baramki, director of reproductive endocrinology at Greater Baltimore Medical Center and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins.

If the average age of menarche -- the onset of menstruation -- is 12.5, the normal range extends to 9.5, he says. So today's parents may have to begin preparing their daughters for menarche as early as the fourth grade. Youngsters usually enter the developing process, called pubescence, a couple of years before they reach sexual maturity.

"The observant parent will not be surprised," says Dr. Baramki. ,, The signs appear slowly, with girls developing breast buds and going through a growth spurt before menarche.

While youngsters are maturing physically at earlier ages, they are marrying or going to work at later ages. This disharmony between biology and sociology means that young boys and girls are caught, longer and longer, in an uncertain world where they feel adult-like pressures but aren't really a part of the adult world.

Because they look mature, adults tend to treat them as if they are older, subjecting them to social pressures for which they're unprepared, emotionally and intellectually. As a result, girls are becoming increasingly at risk of earlier pregnancy and sexual abuse and boys may encounter more temptations for misbehavior, doctors and teachers say. And smoking and drinking are occurring at earlier ages as younger and younger children mimic the behavior of adults.

Something else is in store for the more typical youngsters who avoid such extremes: They are expected to endure even more years of teen-age angst.

"They're developing physically at a younger age," says Deborah M. Roffman, who teaches classes in sexuality at Park School, "and the cues that adults pay attention to are the visible ones."

Youngsters also pick up on those cues. Beth Dwyer, a ninth-grader at Park School in Baltimore County, says that when a girl begins to mature physically, she encounters subtle pressures to change her behavior. "If you're friends with a guy," she says, "you have to stop being friends. Because if you start maturing, it's like, 'Oh, they're going steady.' "

The girl who wants to keep the kind of relationship appropriate to her age rather than her appearance has difficulty doing so.

Physical realities

It's also downright embarrassing having to deal with physical realities that once were the province of older girls. Younger girls tend to giggle uncomfortably when discussing menstruation or breasts. Beth says most girls try to hide early development as much as possible, so much so that one girl who began menstruating in fourth grade and was open and comfortable about it acquired near-legendary status at school.

Any kind of difference is acute at that age. "If a girl is tall," Beth says, "she feels like the tallest person ever."

Youngsters also feel they're spending a lot of time being neither child nor adult.

"A lot of my friends think they'll be in school forever," says Beth, who is 14. "They all want to drive. They want to go and do something different. They want to move on. They get sick of who they are. We've been treated as kids so long that we want to be adults."

The growth spurt that accompanies puberty can put enormous pressure on boys, says Daniel Student, another Park ninth-grader, and those who grow later rather than earlier encounter many miserable moments.

"It was hard," says Daniel. "I was waiting to grow and waiting and waiting. I would be treated like a little kid because I was short." He is 14, and his growth spurt came last year. "The ones who grow at 11 and 12 get all the attention," he says.

The physical variables, he says, account for confusion over behavior. "Sometimes I find myself acting silly, and people give me an odd look," he says, frustrated that now that he's taller, he is expected to act older than his age.

He sympathizes with girls who shoot up in height in fifth or sixth grade, recalling a tall girl who was awkward and withdrawn until eighth grade, when others caught up with her. "By eighth grade," he says, "she was a nice person."

Doctors and teachers alike say it's vital for youngsters to understand that there's only one common condition during pubescence, and that is that everyone is very different and develops at a different rate.

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