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Early puberty in girls reported to increase risk of social problems

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Puberty does not happen at the same age in both boys and girls. Those that mature earlier than most of their peers undergo both physical and emotional changes. A new study evaluated the impact of early puberty and also analyzed differences by race/ethnicity. The results of the study were published online on December 9 in the journal Pediatrics by researchers at University of Alabama at Birmingham (Birmingham, Alabama), RAND Corporation (Santa Monica, California), University of Texas Health Science Center (Houston, Texas), and Harvard Medical School (Boston, Massachusetts).

The study group comprised 2,607 girls from three metropolitan areas and their parents; both the girls and their parents were interviewed at ages 11, 13, and 16 years. The girls noted the date of their first menstrual period, any deviant behavior displayed by their best friend, delinquency, as well as physical, relational, and nonphysical aggression. The parents reported on family sociodemographic characteristics and provided information regarding their daughter’s race/ethnicity.

The investigators found that 16% of the girls were early maturers (defined by onset of first menses before age 11 years). Overall, relational and nonphysical aggression increased from age 11 to age 16; however, delinquency and physical aggression did not change during that period. The researchers found that early puberty was associated with increased incidences of delinquency and physical aggression at age 11. The negative aspect associated with early puberty decreased over time for physical aggression; however, it did not decrease. Deviant behavior by a girl’s best friend was related to higher degrees of all problem behaviors; however, the impact decreased over time for most outcomes. Early puberty was associated with a stronger connection between best friend’s deviance and delinquency; this finding suggested that girls that matured earlier were more susceptible to negative peer pressure. In regard to race/ethnicity, a similar vulnerability among early maturers was observed for relational and nonphysical aggression among girls in the “other” racial/ethnic minority group only.

The authors concluded that early puberty and friends’ deviance may increase the risk of problem behavior in young adolescent girls. Many of these associations dissipate over time; however, early-maturing girls are at risk of persistently higher delinquency and stronger negative peer influences.

Take home message:
This study notes the impact on girls that mature earlier than their peers. However, the changes that occur during puberty should be discussed openly with children of either sex. Many books, geared to the teen and preteen level are available. A healthcare provider can be helpful. In the past, children were often not informed regarding changes that would occur in their bodies. Many young girls were surprised and horrified when their first menstruation occurred. They assumed that something was terribly wrong and that they might bleed to death. In the past, menstruation was referred to as “the curse,” which brought up a negative image to this bodily process. Even today, many parents are reluctant to bring up the topic and assume that the school will take care of education in that area. If you are uncomfortable with discussing the topic, provide information with books or video material and/or a healthcare professional.

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