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The timing and tempo of puberty affect behavior

September 02, 2011|By Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • How puberty unfolds can affect behavior, a new study shows.
How puberty unfolds can affect behavior, a new study shows. (Lisa Adams / For The Times )

For something as monumental as puberty -- the period of rapid physical growth that transforms a child's body into an adult's -- not much is known about the intricacies of pubertal development and how it affects kids' behavior.

A new study, however, suggests that behavior and mood problems can be predicted by how early or late puberty starts and how fast or slow it progresses. Puberty, say the authors of the study, is not a steady, linear process. Its trajectory can vary significantly from person to person.

Researchers followed 364 white boys and 373 white girls for six years through puberty. In girls, they found, both an early timing of puberty (early compared with their same-age peers) and faster tempo (how fast or slow the puberty evolves from start to finish) were linked with problems related to symptoms of depression, anxiety, social withdrawal or vague physical complaints. A faster tempo was also linked to delinquent behaviors, such as lying and cheating.

In boys, faster tempo was linked to more behavioral problems. Boys who started puberty earlier than their peers and progressed through puberty faster than normal experienced the most problems.

"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," the lead author of the study, Kristine Marceau, of Penn State, said in a news release. "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."

The study suggests that the timing of puberty and how fast or slow it progresses may be governed by different endocrine processes and may influence behavior in different ways.

The study, a collaboration between researchers at Penn State, Duke University and UC Davis, is published in the September issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.

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