Hello brave parents and caregivers,
Once you’ve passed the toddler years, it’s time to enjoy a well-earned respite from meltdowns and big emotions, right? I’ve looked forward to middle childhood as a time to dial back, at least a little, on the emotion and behavior regulation work of early childhood. But just the other day my friends and I were musing about how, all of a sudden, it feels like we have mini teenagers in the house. Uncharacteristic heightened emotions were a common thread. How weird, I thought, that we’re in the same boat together at the same time?
I decided to do some research to try to figure out what the heck was going on. I was fascinated by what I learned—before what we typically consider to be puberty, there is an early phase of puberty that also leads to hormone changes that can impact emotions and behaviors.
This was not on my radar, so I figured it might not be on yours. Read on to learn more!
The puberty we all know and love (aka gonadarche) usually starts around age 9 or 10 years in girls and about 6 to 12 months later in boys. It’s associated with rising estrogen and testosterone levels and external physical changes.
But, here’s the kicker–BEFORE that, there is an early part of puberty that occurs from ages 6-9 years old. This phase of puberty (adrenarche) involves the release of androgens from the adrenal glands (small, triangle-shaped glands above each kidney) and is not associated with external physical changes.
We are all familiar with the hormonal changes that happen during as-we-know-it puberty. But little attention has been paid to the early part of puberty.
So, let’s take a closer look.
Early Puberty: Anxiety
Hormones play a role in the development of anxiety and hormonal changes can start in the early part of puberty, as young as 6-years-old. The amygdala is a main brain region involved in the development of anxiety; it detects threat and cues the body to respond accordingly. In boys, the hormones released during the early phase of puberty may impact the brain’s amygdala system to give rise to social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, and panic or agoraphobia (i.e., the fear of closed or open spaces or of leaving the home). Similarly, in girls, the effects of early-puberty hormones on the amygdalar system may give rise to generalized anxiety symptoms. Here, the bottom line is that the hormones released during the early part of puberty may lead to anxiety.
As a quick side note, for anyone interested in learning more about the role of the amygdala in mental health symptoms, check out the Provans’ Poppy and the Overactive Amygdala. It tells the story of Poppy and how her overactive amygdala affects her emotions and relationships. It is written in simple language to appeal to a wide range of ages (though it’s likely to be too technical for younger children) and is a great resource for children and caregivers to gain insight into the brain basis of mental health symptoms. Poppy and the Overactive Amygdala conveys the important message that mental health conditions are brain-based diseases, not diseases of choice.
Early Puberty: Emotions and Behaviors
In addition, the early phase of puberty may bring on emotional and behavioral problems.
In boys, the hormones of early puberty may be associated with:
- Emotional problems: worries, unhappiness, nervousness, and fearfulness
- Peer relationship problems: preferring to play alone, fights with other children, bullying or being bullied
- Conduct problems: tantrums, fighting, lying, and stealing
In girls, early-puberty hormones may be associated with peer relationship problems.
Early Puberty and Mental Health
So, we’ve established that the early phase of puberty may be a player in the development of anxiety and emotional and behavioral symptoms. But who cares? First, just knowing this helps us understand our 6 -to-9-year-old kids better; to the extent that understanding breeds compassion and helps us manage how we react to our kids, gaining insight into our kids’ development is always a good thing.
Also, it’s important to realize that the early phase of puberty is a vulnerable time for kids emotionally; therefore, it may offer a critical window to prevent the development of mental health disorders. For instance, it is well-established that conflict with peers, such as bullying, is associated with mental health problems. Intervention aimed at mitigating peer problems before or during early puberty may prevent the development of mental health conditions in affected kids.
Emotional and Behavioral Changes in Early Puberty: What Should I Do?
While all kids experience hormonal change in early puberty, some will also experience emotional and behavioral changes or anxiety. Because this may be a vulnerable time for the development of a mental health disorder, please seek an evaluation if you have concerns about your child. Your pediatrician is a good place to start.
Alongside an evaluation and recommended treatments, work to connect with your child. Keep the lines of communication open. For younger children, parent-child interaction techniques may be helpful. If your child experiences anxiety, check out these articles to learn more about how to help: Avoid Avoidance and Anxiety in Children. Above all, validate your child’s feelings and provide unconditional love and support.
Brave parents and caregivers,
If your child’s heightened emotions remind you of a teenager’s, it’s not just your imagination; hormonal changes during early puberty may be contributing. Approach with love, understanding, and compassion –your support will go a long way toward helping your child during this challenging time.
Until next time,
- Marjolein EA, Simmons JG, Byrne ML, et al. (2018). Associations between adrenarcheal hormones, amygdala functional connectivity and anxiety symptoms in children. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 97: 156-163.
- Mundy LK, Romaniuk H, M.Biostat LC, et al. (2015). Adrenarche and the emotional and behavioral problems of late childhood. Journal of Adolescent Health. 57: 608-616.