Psychosocial Consequences of Pubertal Timing
Once the process of puberty begins, how do school-age children adjust psychologically to the rapid development of their bodies? The answer to this question is, “it depends.” Research tells us that, among other individual and environmental factors, adjustment to puberty depends on
- The timing of puberty
- Simultaneous occurrence of other stressors
- Adjustment in middle childhood (Weichold, Silbereisen, & Schmitt-Rodermund, 2003)
The early-maturation or early-timing hypothesis identifies early maturation as the best predictor of adjustment to puberty (Brooks-Gunn, Petersen, & Eichorn, 1985; Caspi & Moffitt, 1991). Specifically, girls who mature early have the most difficulty adjusting to pubertal change because early physical changes are not accompanied by similar cognitive, social, and emotional changes. Thus early-maturing females are ill equipped to cope with the different expectations placed on them.
Researchers have found that when compared to same-aged peers, early-maturing girls experience significantly higher levels of psychological distress and are more vulnerable to prior psychological problems, deviant peer pressures, and fathers’ hostile feelings (Ge, Conger, & Elder, 1996). Early-maturing girls are least satisfied with their height and weight, have poorer body image, and reported eating problems (Stice, Presnell, & Bearman, 2001). Early-maturing girls also engage more in drinking, smoking, and sexual activity (Magnusson, Stattin, & Allen, 1985; Wilson et al., 1994).
It had long been thought that there was very little psychosocial risk associated with being an early-maturing male (Jones & Bayley, 1950; Mussen & Jones, 1957). In fact, the thinking was that it was advantageous for males to mature early because they were viewed as more desirable by females and were more admired by their peers. Recent research, however, shows psychosocial adjustment problems similar to those of females (Ge, Conger, & Elder, 2001). Early-maturing males manifest more hostile feelings and internalizing symptomology (e.g., anxiety) than on-time and late-maturing males. In addition, early-maturing males are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior, drug and alcohol use, and sexual activity and to experience greater depression (for a review, see Huddleston & Ge, 2003). These findings hold true for African Americans, Mexican Americans, and many other males from around the world (Cota-Robles, Neiss, & Rowe, 2002).
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