Record numbers of girls not yet old enough for middle school are starting puberty. Almost by definition, puberty arrives at an awkward age, but these are grade-school girls, thrown into a developmental gantlet before they are ready for the change.
As mothers of young girls, we see this phenomenon and fret over the implications. Early puberty can lead to eating disorders, depression, substance abuse, early sexual activity and, later in life, breast cancer. But as doctors, we wince at misleading stories that blame substances that are not likely to bear the primary responsibility — hormones in our meat or soy in our diets, for instance. The real culprits include two problems that are often overlooked: obesity and family stress.