Adolescents who Speed through Puberty More Likely to Suffer from Anxiety, Depression

Study results find that adolescents who go through puberty faster are at an increased risk of suffering from anxiety and depression.

Upon reviewing the results from a study about adolescents, researchers from Penn State, Duke University, and the University of California learned that those who go through puberty at an accelerated rate have an increased risk of developing behavioral problems and suffering from anxiety and depression.

The study, led by Elizabeth Susman, Jean Phillips Shibley Professor of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State, indicates that primary care physicians, as well as parents and teachers, should observe how long it takes a child to go through puberty, as well as the timing of puberty in relation to a child’s behavioral issues.

"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," reported primary author Kristine Marceau, a Penn State graduate student. "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."

To evaluate their findings, Susman et al. collected data on 364 Caucasian boys and 373 Caucasian girls from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, where they collected information on physical details about the participants of the previous study, such as breast and pubic hair development in girls and genital and pubic hair development in boys (as assessed by nurses); weight and height for both boys and girls was also considered. Mental and emotional information on the participants was reviewed, such as internalizing and externalizing behavior problems as reported by the parents of the boys and girls; risky sexual behavior was reported by the adolescents themselves.

Marceau reported that the researchers "found that earlier timing for girls was related to a slew of behavior problems, and we also found that a faster tempo of development independently predicted those same sorts of problem behaviors.”

"Although timing and tempo both predicted behavior problems in girls, timing and tempo weren't related to each other,” continued Marceau. “For boys, though, we found a strong relationship between timing and tempo. For example, we found that boys who have later timing combined with slower tempo exhibited the least amount of acting out and externalizing problems."

These findings lead to many questions, the main one focuses on why, exactly, accelerated puberty is connected to external behavior problems and internal anxiety and depression.

"The thought is that when the major changes of puberty are compressed into a shorter amount of time, adolescents don't have enough time to acclimate, so they're not emotionally or socially ready for all the changes that happen," said Marceau. "This is the explanation that originally was attributed solely to early timing, but we suggest that the same thing also is happening if the rate of puberty is compressed."

Susman said that the timing and tempo of puberty can fluctuate radically between adolescents.

"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 or the externalizing problems of acting out," Susman stated.

Susman reported plans to assess how the pace of puberty can affect health issues in older woman. “One of the things that has concerned me over the years is the relationship between early puberty and later women's health problems," she said. "Specifically, there is some indication that early timing of puberty relates to more reproductive cancers, with the speculated mechanism being estradiol. If you're an early maturer, you have a longer exposure to this hormone. The question is whether the tempo of puberty has similar implications for women's health."

The study will appear in the September issue of Developmental Psychology.