Why is My Child Acting Out: Exploring Surging Hormones Before Puberty

    Surging Hormones: Years Before Puberty. Has your six, seven, or eight year old child suddenly become extra moody? Or do they seem to be a bit off and unable to explain why? It could be caused by surging hormones – and it can happen years before puberty.

    What Causes the Hormone Surge?

    If your child seems to have changed recently, it might be adrenarche, an endocrinological event when the adrenal glands begin excreting powerful hormones affecting the brain, most notably dihydroepiandrosterone, also known as DHEA. This developmental process occurs as children’s bodies prepare to exit childhood and enter the wild world of puberty.

    The surge of hormones signals the physical changes involved with puberty and it all begins well before the teenage years – years which are more often associated with the perplexing process of puberty.

    Marking the end of childhood and before the onset of adolescence, the surge may begin around the age of 6 but it is not uncommon for an early adrenarche around the age of 5. The androgen hormones during adrenarche have an effect on developing brains and behaviour. No wonder we see some interesting conduct in our children around this time!

    I certainly recall my son suddenly not enjoying school at the end of year 3. At the time, I couldn’t understand why a smart, sporty and well-liked kid wouldn’t love going to school. He was excelling in school, played a few sports and had a lot of great friends. Why wouldn’t he want to be at school where he seemed to be thriving? We tried to get to the bottom of it by talking to his teacher, asking the school counsellor for advice and getting him to write a pros/cons list about going to school. We hoped to get an idea of what could be at the heart of his sudden aversion.

    We never got any solid answers and the aversion carried on for several more school terms even though my son seemed happy otherwise. Now with the knowledge of this early hormone surge, I think we can attribute his dislike of school during that period to just that. Years following, my daughter didn’t have those aversions to school but she most certainly had some very moody moments at similar ages and there may be more to come.

    As described in the event known as adrenarche, it is clear that hormones have a huge influence even before puberty. The increasing hormone levels continue throughout the teen years and have a big impact on behaviour. On the path to maturing, children seem to become fixated on social interactions. It’s likely you will see girls playing mostly with other girls and boys with boys. At this time, children are more driven to learn the social rules of games, slang, style and behaviour in addition to questioning fairness and justice. Do these things ring true with your children aged 7 – 10 years old? Now you know why.

    A 2015 article on the topic of surging hormones and puberty describes “a tendency to direct increased attention and motivation to social domains may have adaptive advantages in this developmental window.” As children grow and mature, their hormones direct a lot of their behaviours.

    An Australian study known as The Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study included 1,239 eight to nine year old children from primary schools in Melbourne, Australia. The levels of DHEA, DHEA-S and testosterone were measured alongside parent questionnaires of behaviour. What they found in that study was that with higher levels of those androgens in boys, there were more reported overall difficulties and problems with peers. Higher DHEA and testosterone levels were linked with emotional problems while higher DHEA-S levels were associated with conduct issues. For girls, DHEA-S correlated with peer problems.

    The study concluded that “in late childhood, androgens are associated with emotional and behavioral problems in males, raising a possibility that the adrenarchal transition plays a contributing role.” Thus, “primary school years may prove to be an important phase for preventing the onset of mental health and behavioral problems in boys.” I’d argue this applies to girls too.

    Keep an eye on your children’s behaviour during this period and see if you notice emotional and behavioural changes. Not all children will experience these but if yours do, this information may help you understand what’s going on.

    You might also be interested in reading: Health, Safety, Sex: How to Care For Your Tween



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