Early Onset Puberty: Linked To Teenage Depression
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It seems that children are maturing faster and sooner than ever before. The earlier onset of puberty seems to be occurring much frequently in Western society than in others. Evidence suggests some contributing factors of this phenomena, are due to their exposure to improved nutrition, higher levels of pollution, and genetics. Children are now better nourished, taller and heavier, triggering the start of an earlier onset of puberty.
Research consistently demonstrates that earlier physical maturation promotes adolescent problem behaviors. Since puberty spans multiple developmental domains, it is not surprising that early physical maturation comes with a wide variety of negative consequences including substance abuse, eating pathology, body dissatisfaction, externalizing behavior, risky sexual behavior, abortion, and some aspects of academic achievement.
These potential issues can be extremely disheartening to parents who are struggling with watching their “babies” grow up too fast. A recent study emerging out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has concluded, not surprisingly, that teens that begin puberty ahead of their peers are also at a heightened risk of depression. According to Karen D. Rudolph, psychology professor, and lead investigator on the study, “Early maturation triggers an array of psychological, social-behavioral and interpersonal difficulties that predict elevated levels of depression in boys and girls several years later.”
Researchers have long speculated that the transition into to puberty, in and of itself, is a stressful life event, and that places these children at an increased risk for depression. It is additionally likely the hormones associated with puberty may influence the manifestation of depressive symptoms.
The Beginning of the Study
Rudolph and her team documented the onset of puberty and monitored levels of depression among more than 160 kids over a four-year period. During their early teenage years, the teens were asked to complete annual questionnaires and interviews to assess their psychological risk factors, interpersonal stressors and coping behaviors. Parents were also asked to report on their observations of their children’s social relationships and difficulties. Published online by the journal, Development and Psychopathology, the study is one of the first research projects to confirm that early puberty heightens risk for depression in both sexes over time and to explain the underlying mechanisms.
According to Rudolph, “In girls, early maturation seems to trigger immediate psychological and environmental risks and consequent depression,”. “Pubertal changes cause early maturing girls to feel badly about themselves, cope less effectively with social problems, affiliate with deviant peers, enter riskier and more stressful social contexts and experience disruption and conflict within their relationships.” Furthermore, “It is often believed that going through puberty earlier than peers only contributes to depression in girls,” Rudolph said. “We found that early maturation can also be a risk for boys as they progress through adolescence, but the timing is different than in girls.” She went on to add, “While early maturation seemed to protect boys from the challenges of puberty initially, boys experienced an emerging cascade of personal and contextual risks – negative self-image, anxiety, social problems and interpersonal stress – that eventuated in depression as they moved through adolescence.”
The researchers discovered that children who entered puberty ahead of their peers were susceptible to a number of precursors to depression. They had poorer self-images, greater anxiety, social problems - including heightened conflicts between family members and peers, and they tended to befriend others who were more likely to get into trouble.
Other research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that girls who started their periods before the age of 11.5 years had the highest rates of depression at 13 and 14. By comparison, girls who started their periods after the age of 13.5 had the lowest rates of depression. All these markers have been occurring steadily earlier for both boys and girls, but recent changes have been dramatic.
Over the past 15 years, girls have started having periods three months earlier; in the same time span boys’ development has dropped by a similar amount to 11.66 years. While physical changes seem to be occurring earlier and earlier, the brain seems set on its own developmental timetable. The changes that occur in the brain are unrelated to an individual’s hormones. These brain developments used to precede puberty, but are now occurring in parallel to, or afterwards.
As boys and girls progress through middle childhood (ages 7 through 11), their peer relationships take on greater importance. This means that older children likely enjoy group activities and popularity and conformity become the focus of intense concern and even worry. Similar to same‐age peers, friendships in middle childhood are mostly based on similarity. If a child is going through puberty ahead of their peers, they feel confused, become detached, embarrassed, and even seek out older kids to associate with, who they perceive they have more in common with.
Common thought processes in late childhood (ages 11 through 13 years old) become more egocentric. The child tends to believe that others scrutinize their appearance and actions. They also feel that their experiences and emotions are unique to only them. As a result, children at this developmental stage age are highly self-conscious, while at the same feeling powerful and invincible. This is a volatile combination for a struggling youth experiencing the stressors of puberty and ensuing physical and hormonal changes. “It’s important to note, that only some teens are vulnerable to the effects of early maturation, particularly those with more disruption in their families and less support in their peer relationships,” Rudolph said.
Understanding the emotional and physical dichotomy experienced by these kids is essential for parents, families, counselors and teachers alike, in order to help them through this transition. Just because their bodies are quickly maturing, doesn’t mean they are emotionally able to handle the situation maturely.
Conclusion: Puberty may be linked with the onset of teenage depression, and early onset puberty appears to be a potential cause for even greater levels of teenage depression, negative self-image, stress, anxiety, and social challenges.
-Laura A. Wells
Forrest, S. (Ed.). (2014, November 19). Teens who mature early at greater risk of depression, study says. Retrieved November 28, 2014, from http://news.illinois.edu/news/14/1119puberty_KarenRudolph.html
Mendle, J., Turkheimer, E., & Emery, R. (2007, June). Detrimental Psychological Outcomes Associated with Early Pubertal Timing in Adolescent Girls. Retrieved November 28, 2014, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2927128/
Smith, R. (Ed.). (2004, July 30). Early puberty leads to depression in girls: Research. Retrieved November 28, 2014, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/8237199/Early-puberty-leads-to-depression-in-girls-research.html
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (2014, November 19). Teens who mature early at greater risk of depression. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 28, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141119142209.htm