The idea that children are growing up too fast these days is nothing new. I remember my grandmother lamenting the same thing, and perhaps her grandmother made a similar observation. Since the mid-1800's girls have been reaching puberty at progressively younger ages. Now, it's not that uncommon for eight-year-old girls to start sprouting breasts.
A study published in the journal Pediatrics
showed that 18 percent of white and 43 percent of black eight-year-old females are already showing signs of sexual maturity. While starting puberty at an early age
carries an obvious set of problems, a new study shows that all children that move through puberty at a faster rate
are more likely to have behavior problems and suffer from anxiety and depression
. In other words, in regards to behavior, the age
that the onset of puberty begins doesn't matter as much alone as how fast or how slow
kids progress through pubescent stages.
The study was conducted by researchers from Penn State, Duke University and the University of California. Kristine Marceau from Penn State and the lead author said, "Past work has examined the timing of puberty and shown the negative consequences of entering puberty at an early age, but there has been little work done to investigate the effects of tempo. By using a novel statistical tool to simultaneously model the timing and tempo of puberty in children, we present a much more comprehensive picture of what happens during adolescence and why behavior problems may ensue as a result of going through these changes."
The research team led by Elizabeth Susman, a professor from Penn State, examined data from 364 white boys and 373 white girls. Included in the data was information assessed by nurses about pubic hair and breast development in girls and pubic hair and genital development in boys. Height and weight was reported for both. There were also notes from parents or caregivers concerning behavior problems
, and kids themselves reported on any risky sexual behavior.
After analyzing the data, researchers found both an earlier timing and faster tempo of development in girls was linked to a whole host of problem behaviors, though the two were independent of each other. For boys, however, there was a substantial relationship between tempo and timing. Results showed that boys acted out less if they had both later timing and a slower tempo. Why does a fast tempo relate to behavior problems, depression and anxiety?
The research team thinks when such major hormonal, emotional, and physical changes are squeezed into a short period of time, adolescents don't have a chance to adjust. That means they aren't socially or emotionally mature enough to handle all the changes going on. This is true for both early timing and a compressed rate of puberty.
Of course, timing and tempo varies across kids. According to Susman, “ Children are extremely sensitive to how fast or slow other kids are going through puberty, and that may contribute to both the internalizing depression-type problems and the externalizing problems of acting out.”
The big take-away from this is that teachers and parents should be ready to offer coping skills and support to boys and girls starting puberty at an early age, but also pay attention to the tempo of puberty. If behavior problems begin to crop up such skills are likely to smooth the normally rock road through puberty.