Marissa Carter, a Galveston, Texas, housewife, could not believe it when her daughter Sharon, at the tender age of 4, seemed to be developing breasts. The tiny buds that appeared on the little girl's chest were gone within a couple of weeks, but three years later, they reappeared, and this time they grew--along with pubic hair and hair in Sharon's armpits. "I felt this was too early for her to be developing," recalls Carter. "Gosh, I was flat as a board at her age."
So after a series of medical consultations, the Carters (all these names have been changed at the families' request) put Sharon on lupron, a hormone that slams the brakes on puberty--only to see their happy little girl go into terrible mood swings. "I had a child acting like she was in menopause," says Carter. The parents decided to stop the treatment, and by age 9, Sharon had full-blown breasts and was getting her period.
Laura Stover took her daughter Karen to a specialist when the girl began growing pubic hair at age 5. The doctor put Karen through a battery of blood tests to rule out ovarian tumors (which can force glands to churn out puberty-triggering hormones). But there was no apparent medical problem, and by age 8, Karen had full pubic growth. "We didn't allow her to go to any slumber parties," says Stover. "Or to change bathing suits in front of other children."
Cecilia Morton, in Santa Maria, Calif., has not one but two daughters who developed early. Clara, now 13, started sprouting breasts and pubic hair when she was 8 and began menstruating a year later, at summer camp. Says her mother: "It was scary and embarrassing because the girls in her cabin didn't have their periods yet." Then Clara's little sister Susan, a kindergartner, began developing at the same time. Although Susan's tests were normal, Morton put her on hormone treatments. "We already see how men look at Clara," she says. "If my younger one didn't have the medication, I can't even imagine the problems we'd be having."
If these were isolated cases, they might be chalked up to statistical flukes. But it seems as if everywhere you turn these days--outside schools, on soccer fields, at the mall--there are more and more elementary schoolgirls whose bodies look like they belong in high school and more and more middle schoolers who look like college coeds. "Young girls [in the 5-to-10-year-old range] with breasts or pubic hair--we encounter this every day we're in clinic," says Dr. Michael Freemark, chief of pediatric endocrinology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
It's as if an entire generation of girls had been put on hormonal fast-forward: shooting up, filling out, growing like Alice munching on the wrong side of the mushroom--and towering Mutt and Jeff-like over a generation of boys who seem, next to the girls, to be getting smaller every year (see box).