Children’s Health

Puberty starts earlier in many American boys

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Two years ago, new research showed that American girls were hitting puberty at younger ages than ever. The same thing is happening with boys: they are starting puberty almost two years earlier than they did 30 to 40 years ago. Why this is happening isn’t clear, but it could affect social and sexual behaviors. A new study shows that the average age of puberty is now 10 years for white boys (about one-and-a-half years earlier than what has long been considered “normal”), 9 years for African-American boys (about two years earlier than expected), and 10 years for Hispanic boys, which is unchanged from before. Although early puberty is increasingly common, it can be a signal of a tumor in the brain, pituitary glands, or elsewhere; an underactive thyroid gland; or other medical problems.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.

The angry adolescent — a phase or depression?

Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

A friend once asked me about his son, who was about to turn 20. As a teenager, the boy had a quick temper. But now, on the brink of adulthood, the young man seemed to be getting worse. When a teen gets angrier as time goes by, it is a cause for concern. A 19-year-old is no longer a child, but neither is he or she a fully-fledged adult. This in-between state can extend well into the twenties. Some human development researchers have begun to call it “emerging adulthood.” No matter this stage is called, it presents a tricky time for parents and their children. Emerging adults must decide how much help they want or are willing to accept from their parents or anyone else. At the same time, parents must decide how much help it is reasonable to give.

Nancy Ferrari

iPad apps and screen time for kids: learning or babysitting?

Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

The other day I saw a mother hand an iPhone to a young baby in a stroller. I cringed because it made me think of how much time my young kids spend on the iPad and in front of the TV. It’s a dilemma for parents. Is it okay to let your daughter play with your phone so you can get five minutes of quiet in a restaurant, or will that permanently scuttle her attention span? Ann Densmore, Ed.D., an expert in speech and language development and co-author of Your Successful Preschooler, offers some practical advice for parents. “Screen time is here to stay for young children and we can’t stop it,” she told me. “The world is now inescapably online and digital. Even schools are replacing textbooks with iPads and digital texts. So moms and dads really need to figure out what’s right for their families.”

FDA won’t ban BPA—yet

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Bisphenol A, or BPA, has been used for decades to make hard plastic water bottles and to coat the inside of food cans. Tiny amounts of BPA migrate from these containers into water or food, and then into people. BPA is thought to mimic the effects of the hormone estrogen, which can interfere with growth and throw off normal hormonal interactions. In 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the FDA to ban the use of BPA in food packaging. The FDA finally responded last week. It denied the petition, saying the organization didn’t provide compelling data to make the case for a ban. The FDA didn’t rule out further action. In the meantime, there are several things you can do to minimize your BPA exposure.

New book, The Autism Revolution, offers hope, help for families

For decades, the word “autism” meant an immutable brain disorder, one determined solely by genes and that was only marginally responsive to therapies. Today it is coming to mean something different and more manageable. A growing body of research is dramatically changing the face and future of autism. In The Autism Revolution, a new book from Harvard Health Publications that I wrote with Karen Weintraub, I explain this evolution in autism science and offer strategies for families to help their children right now. One practical finding is that autism is not just a brain disorder but a whole-body condition. Treating digestive and immune system problems can make a profound difference in the family’s life, and even in the autism itself. Another finding is that autism may not necessarily be fixed for life, and that some kids improve with time and treatment.

Nancy Ferrari

Kindergarten redshirting is popular, but is it necessary?

Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

More and more parents are “redshirting” their young ones. That’s the practice of not starting a child in kindergarten until after his or her sixth birthday. Ann Densmore, EdD, an expert in language and social communication skills in children and co-author of Your Successful Preschooler, said parents do this to gain competitive advantages for their children and as a response to the shift in what kindergarten is. You can help prepare your children for kindergarten by ensuring there is adequate facilitated play in preschool. On the community level, talk with teachers, principals, and other parents. Challenge school committees. And realize that starting kindergarten is a new beginning for a child and his or her parents.

Snoring in kids linked to behavioral problems

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Children who snore, or sometimes stop breathing during sleep for a few seconds then recover with a gasp (a pattern known as sleep apnea), are more likely to become hyperactive, overly aggressive, anxious, or depressed, according to a new new study in the journal Pediatrics. How could snoring or apnea contribute to behavioral or emotional problems? It is possible that nighttime breathing problems during the brain’s formative years decrease the supply of oxygen to the brain. That could interfere with the development of pathways that control behavior and mood. It is also possible that breathing problems disturb sleep, and it’s the interrupted or poor sleep by itself that may cause trouble in the developing brain.

Can an infection suddenly cause OCD?

Jeff Szymanski, Clinical Instructor in Psychology, Harvard Medical School

Beginning in 1998, infectious disease and mental health experts have identified children who develop symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or tic disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome after an infection. First thought to be linked only to the group A streptococcus bacteria that cause strep throat or scarlet fever, it has been seen with other kinds of infections. Experts propose calling this frightening disorder pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS). It probably happens when the infectious agent gets into the brain and inflames the basal ganglia. Rapid treatment with antibiotics can reverse the symptoms.

New anti-lice lotion is good news for nitpickers

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

The FDA’s approval this week of an old drug called ivermectin for treating head lice comes as good news to folks who shudder at the thought of using a nit comb to remove lice. It will be sold as a lotion under the brand name Sklice. Ivermectin works by interfering with nerve and muscle cells in […]

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.

When are obsessions and compulsions in children a problem?

Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

It is normal for children at some points in their development to be concerned about sameness and symmetry and having things perfect. But when such beliefs or behaviors become all-consuming and start interfering with school, home life, or recreational activities, the problem may be obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Obsessions are irrational thoughts, images, and impulses that a person feels as unrealistic, intrusive, and unwanted. To relieve the anxiety caused by these obsessions, a youth may engage in compulsive rituals. Two main types of treatment are used to help youths better manage OCD: a form of talk therapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication. The ideal approach is to try cognitive behavioral therapy before turning to medication.