Psychosocial Correlates Of Puberty Research Paper

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1. Introduction

This research paper aims to review recent research on the ways in which the biological changes of puberty influence and are influenced by the social and psychological contexts in which young people live and develop. While the biology of puberty has presumably been relatively constant since the emergence of Homo sapiens, the context in which young people are developing has changed dramatically. The evidence for these effects and interactions will be briefly reviewed, with some attention to the processes thought to be involved. It is important to note that almost all of this research is descriptive and correlational rather than experimental, although more work is being done with animal models to clarify causal explanations.

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The phrase ‘pubertal youth’ is likely to evoke images of a group of children at least some of whom are beginning to show manifestations of physical maturity in terms of adult size and shape. Similarly, ‘pubertal behavior’ would conjure images related to interest in the other sex. A photograph often used in textbooks on adolescence in which somewhat taller girls are paired as dancing partners with later-developing boys depicts both ‘pubertal youth’ and ‘pubertal behavior.’ That some youngsters depicted in the photograph do not yet show physical changes of puberty demonstrates that some will engage in ‘pubertal behavior’ for social reasons. Further, the probabilistic nature of any complex developmental process implies that what generally occurs in a cohort of youngsters will not apply to some individuals.

The psychosocial correlates of puberty, together with the biological process of puberty itself, are usually considered to be a single biopsychosocial process (that is, a process involving biological, psychological, and social aspects) in development. Here, ‘puberty’ is used to refer to the biological aspects of the process rather than the biopsychosocial process. In this research paper, psychosocial correlates will be considered in two ways: (a) those that appear to influence the timing or nature of the biological process and (b) those that appear to be results or effects of the process. The term ‘behavioral’ will be used for both kinds of psychosocial correlates. It is assumed that influences from the social context (including structural influences) have effects through behavior.

2. Behavioral Influences On Puberty

2.1 Influences On Pubertal Timing

There is evidence that several behavioral influences affect the timing of puberty, with some altering physical appearance. These include eating behavior, exercise, stress, and sexual behavior. Starvation and other extreme stress may prevent the pubertal process from ensuing, presumably to prevent reproductive capacity in an organism unable to sustain it. Limited nutritional intake along with high physical demands on the body result in a delay of pubertal onset. For example, puberty is delayed by 1–2 years in ballet dancers, figure skaters, and gymnasts who practice intensely and restrict eating. Because prepubertal growth of the long bones continues, these youngsters may have longer limbs than would otherwise be the case (Eveleth and Tanner 1990).

Recent hypotheses have linked familial stress to acceleration or delay of puberty. For example, evolutionary theory is used to posit that children of parents under high stress will engage in behavior that will speed their exit from the family (Belsky et al. 1991). Parents under high family stress will engage in insensitive, inconsistent, and affectively negative parental care. Young children in this circumstance then develop insecure attachments to parents and an opportunistic style of interacting with others. These children are more likely to develop behavior problems such as aggression or social withdrawal in childhood and risky sex or substance use behaviors in adolescence. While the exact process linking family relationships to pubertal timing has not been identified, it is argued that earlier pubertal timing is adaptive in this circumstance.

Delay of puberty has also been proposed to result from stressful family contexts. In this hypothesis, environmental stress increases adrenal hormones (i.e., the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis) which inhibit sex steroids (i.e., the hypothalamic–pituitary– gonadal axis) (Malo and Tremblay 1997). Research supporting this hypothesis has found that families with paternal alcoholism or with negative emotions expressed by parents were more likely also to have sons with delayed puberty. The presumptive mechanism is a stress response in the sons that interferes with hormonal mechanism for initiating puberty resulting in delayed pubertal onset.

Another line of work links prepubertal sexual abuse to earlier puberty (Trickett and Putnam 1993). The underlying mechanism may be pheromones that trigger pubertal onset, or some other triggering mechanism related to the stimulating effects of sexual contact.

This work is all relatively new and more work is needed to refine understanding of precipitating factors and mechanisms. It is possible that behavioral influences operating directly on the gonadal system accelerate pubertal onset whereas those that operate primarily through the adrenal system delay puberty. However, at this point there is no definitive research to clarify why some stressors accelerate while others delay pubertal onset.

In any case, it is clear that even timing of pubertal onset, an aspect of puberty with strong evidence of genetic influence, can be affected by behavior within the social contexts in which young people live and develop.

2.2 Influences On Other Aspects Of Puberty

The example of exercise above is one in which effects have been seen on the adult shape that results from pubertal growth, in addition to delaying pubertal onset. Young ballet dancers who train many hours a day develop longer limbs—both arms and legs— compared with sisters and mothers. A similar effect has been observed among swimmers. While there surely are selection effects confounding the results for these elite athletes, the comparison with other family members provides some degree of control.

Although there are likely to be other examples of effects of behavior on pubertal outcomes, effects on gross aspects of physical development are easiest to attribute. Even here, though, there is the continuing confound of experience during development that makes causal attribution to pubertal change more difficult to establish. For example, different shapes surely result from different eating patterns (e.g., overeating versus undereating), but in this discussion of puberty the focus is on those outcomes that are pubertal rather than those that would occur at any point in development. As complicated as these issues become with physical attributes, they are even more complicated with psychological or social outcomes.

One effect of context on puberty should be mentioned. The increased life span and generally better health and nutrition of many people today have led to an earlier age at puberty, clearly among more developed nations in the world and increasingly among developing nations (Garn 1992). This changes the context for puberty in that it occurs in otherwise less mature organisms. Some had thought that all aspects of development might proceed in concert, so that earlier puberty would be accompanied by earlier cognitive, psychological, and social development. This does not appear to be the case, probably because of the experience or training (sometimes called socialization) needed to become a mature human. Given the existence of psychologically or socially immature adults, we should not be surprised about physically mature but otherwise immature adolescents.

The fact that puberty occurs a few years earlier now than even in the mid-1900s, and is now closer to 10 years of age among girls than to 20 years as was more typical around 1900, has tremendous significance for our understanding of and also the experience of childhood. Biological maturity permitting procreation occurs at ages much earlier than those typically considered appropriate for taking on adult work and family roles. Most societies have not adjusted to this disjunction, either to protect children from becoming parents too early or to change socialization practices and social institutions to support earlier entry into adult roles. Instead, some societies have blamed the victim in this situation, suggesting that early childbearing represents a moral failure on the part of the child or their families.

3. Pubertal Influences On Behavior

As with the earlier discussion of effects on puberty, pubertal timing is much more important than are other aspects of pubertal change as a factor influencing behavior. Both kinds of effects will be summarized.

3.1 Pubertal Timing Effects

Three hypotheses or models have been proposed for pubertal timing effects on psychosocial adjustment, the outcomes that have been the focus of most research: the stage termination hypothesis, the deviance hypothesis, and the goodness-of-fit hypothesis (Petersen and Taylor 1980, Alsacker 1995). The stage termination hypothesis places pubertal change within the context of other developmental stages, and suggests that early puberty could cause premature termination of prepubertal development. The deviance hypothesis suggests that negative effects could accrue from being deviant for one’s age and gender, as with earlier developing girls and later-developing boys. The goodness-of-fit hypothesis posits that negative effects will result when the social context differs from the individual’s developmental status, as with an aspiring dancer who may be developing on time but producing a body shape different from the prepubertal one valued for dance. There is some support for each of these hypotheses, although developmental stage has receded in importance as a psychological construct.

3.1.1 Body Image. Early-developing girls tend to have poorer body images during adolescence, with increasing effects by the end of the adolescent decade, compared with girls developing later or on time relative to their peers. In contrast, early-developing boys had the most positive body image in early adolescence, with effects diminishing over adolescence (Graber et al. 1996). Although body dissatisfaction is most strongly related to short stature among boys and heavier weight among girls, preference for body types has a strong cultural component, with variations seen cross culturally (Silbereisen et al. 1989).

3.1.2 Internalizing Behaviors. Early-developing girls and, to some extent, late-developing boys appear to be more vulnerable to a range of mental health indicators, including internalizing problems (e.g., depression, phobic disorders) (Graber et al. 1997). Research has also shown that pubertal timing effects can be compounded by other life changes occurring at around the same time, such as change to a new school context (Petersen et al. 1991).

3.1.3 Externalizing Behaviors. Earlier pubertal timing among both boys and girls is related to more problems with externalizing behaviors (e.g., aggression, delinquency). This is a strong effect from almost all the studies of problem behavior, including substance use and abuse, with effects found on lifetime rates of substance dependence and disruptive behavior disorders (Graber et al. 1997). There is some evidence that this pubertal timing effect is especially strong when early developers begin associating with older peers.

3.1.4 Sexual Behaviors. Recent research studying hormones, pubertal timing, and sexual behavior demonstrates that for boys high levels of testosterone represent a marker for early puberty, and lead to earlier sexual behavior. For girls, high levels of testosterone also lead to earlier initiation of coitus but do not seem to be markers of early puberty. This research also demonstrates that social control (e.g., religious restriction of social behavior) can moderate biological effects (Halpern et al. 1997). Many other studies find that earlier developers are more likely to be sexually active, consistent with the pattern reported above for externalizing behaviors.

3.1.5 Summary Of Pubertal Timing Effects. For both body image and internalizing behaviors, the deviance hypothesis appears to predict the pattern of results; early-developing girls and, to some extent, late developing boys are at greater risk of problems with these outcomes. For externalizing behaviors and sexual behavior, early development in both boys and girls leads to earlier and more extensive involvement in these behaviors. To the extent that these youngsters become involved with older peers, these results fit the goodness-of-fit hypothesis, but most studies find that early pubertal onset precedes peer choice. Hence, these results seem to suggest that a different model is operating, one more directly biological, although with social moderation of effects.

3.2 Pubertal Status Effects

As noted earlier, very few effects of pubertal status have been reported in the literature. The young person’s stage of pubertal development seems to have little effect on behavior. The one area that is an exception is that of parent–child relationships. As the young person becomes pubertal, there is an increase in parent–child conflict and a decrease in warm interactions peaking midpuberty (or around the time of menarche for girls) and then declining (Paikoff and Brooks-Gunn 1991). The nature of conflict is mild bickering, frequently over chores or other expectations.

4. Conclusion

As this review demonstrates, becoming pubertal has modest significance for relationships with parents but otherwise has little consistent effect on behavior. Whether one becomes pubertal earlier or later than one’s peers is of much greater significance. Deviant development relative to the group of same-aged peers—that is, early development for girls and late development for boys—is related to internalizing behaviors, or the way one feels about oneself. Early development for both boys and girls is related to problems with externalizing behavior, or the way one feels about others. The latter finding suggests that in this time of earlier puberty for youngsters generally, those who are even earlier are especially at risk. Early developing girls are at risk for both internalizing and externalizing problems while early-developing boys are primarily at risk for externalizing problems.

In general, puberty constitutes an important change in a young person’s life. The effects of developing adult size, shape, and reproductive potential are significant. Even more important to the developing individual, however, is the meaning of these changes for the society in which the young person is developing. If these biological changes signal marginality in the society, the impact on the individual is likely to be negative. In contrast, if these changes are welcomed and even celebrated, as was the case in many traditional societies in which puberty was celebrated with rites of passage into adult society, the impact on the individual is likely to be positive. Therefore, societies can choose to have more positive, constructive behavior among their young people, or they can increase the likelihood of negative and life-damaging behaviors among young people.

There is much yet to learn about effects on and effects of puberty. Recent advances in genetics and neuroscience provide tremendous opportunities to link these advances to understanding of development, especially at puberty. Equally important is research illuminating the effects of social and cultural contexts on biological processes such as puberty and the ways in which the biological process of puberty interacts with individual psychology and social context. Especially needed are studies that establish the generality of current findings, or the limits of their generalizability, with broader populations.

Policy efforts are needed to apply what we already know about puberty. There is a need for greater understanding, and recognition in policy and practice, of the fact that puberty is occurring significantly earlier now for young people than it did in the current generation of parents and grandparents. Different effects for boys and girls also require some broader attention in practice if not policy.


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