young women, Mendle says. “In particular, there are changes in
thinking of yourself as sexually desirable or physically attractive
that get emphasized for girls at puberty.”
When girls mature early, they seem to have several
disadvantages right away, Rudolph says. They compare
themselves more negatively to their peers. They’re more anxious
and less confident in their relationships with family and friends.
And they are more likely to hang out with friends — often,
older pals — who engage in risky behaviors such as early sexual
behavior and substance use. Such peer influence seems to be
a major risk factor for mental health problems among early-maturing kids, says Rona Carter, PhD, a psychologist at the
University of Michigan. “If you’re hanging around peers [who
are] engaging in risky behaviors, you’re more likely to engage in
the same kinds of behaviors,” she says.
Parents, too, have influence. For example, Carter says, if
Early puberty, early stress
children look physically older, “parents might grant them more
freedom than perhaps their chronological age would suggest.”
Parents of preteens should hardly panic, however. While
kids who mature early are at an increased risk of mental health
problems, the odds are still in their favor. “Even among early
maturers, the vast majority will get through puberty fine,” says
The key question for researchers, then, is to understand which
factors cause some kids to experience negative mental health
effects associated with early puberty — and which factors might
protect them. But that question is complicated because many of
the social factors that can prompt mental health problems have
themselves been linked to the early onset of puberty — namely
early life stress, absence of fathers in the home, high family
conflict and lower socioeconomic status. Though the reasons
for this link aren’t clear, scientists have hypothesized that an
unstable environment could signal the body to become sexually
mature at earlier ages. “The kids who go through early puberty
aren’t random,” notes Mendle.
Some research suggests that early puberty might compound
the problems associated with early adversity to boost the risk
of depression and other mental health problems even higher.
“These risk factors may be additive,” Graber says. She has
found, for example, that family factors and early maturation
seem to interact to increase the risk of early substance use
(Developmental Psychology, 2010). But family factors alone
did not fully account for the effects of early maturation on
substance use, she notes. “It may be part of the equation, but it’s
not the only factor.”
On the other hand, some research suggests that early
puberty might be a less significant risk factor for some kids
from disadvantaged backgrounds. Mendle and colleagues
recently studied siblings and twins to explore the interplay
between genetics, pubertal timing and environmental factors.
They found that girls who were genetically predisposed to early
puberty were more likely to experience depressive symptoms, but
the pattern only held up among girls from higher socioeconomic
backgrounds. Yet overall, children from lower socioeconomic
communities had higher rates of depression (Clinical
Psychological Science, 2015).
To explain that pattern, Mendle suggests that girls from these
disadvantaged communities have had to navigate a series of risk
factors well before puberty, and might have already developed
a maladaptive response to stress. For kids from more resource-rich backgrounds, early puberty might be their first brush with
Meanwhile, scientists are just beginning to unravel the roles
of race and culture. African-American girls tend to go through
puberty earlier than girls of European descent, with the average
for Hispanic girls falling somewhere in between, and Asian-Americans developing last, on average. But although African-American girls are typically among the first to develop, says
Carter, there’s evidence that they are less likely to experience the
negative effects of early puberty than their European-American
Though researchers don’t fully understand the reasons for
that difference, Carter suggests it might be related to the social
and cultural expectations applied to young women in different
communities. “I think it has something to do with the context
in which [pubertal] changes are taking place,” she says. “How
are girls accommodating to those changes?”
Starting earlier, lasting longer
While researchers are making progress in understanding the
effects of early maturation, there’s a hitch: “Early puberty” is
difficult to define. The average age of pubertal onset appears to
be inching earlier, particularly for girls.
Some of the reason for that change may be positive, says
Kate Keenan, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Chicago.
Improved nutrition, for instance, has been associated with earlier
maturation. On the other hand, negative causes such as increased
stress and obesity have also been linked to early puberty.
Researchers are also exploring whether endocrine-disrupting
chemicals — such as bisphenol A, an estrogen-mimicking
compound once found widely in plastics — might be a factor in
initiating puberty. But without knowing what factors are driving
the trend, Keenan says, it’s hard to know how worried to be.
Since the risks seem to stem from developing early relative to
peers, the shift toward earlier average puberty may not translate
to an increase in the number of kids experiencing psychological
and emotional problems. On the other hand, the earlier kids
go through puberty, the less likely they are to have developed
strong coping skills.
“Even if there’s a collective mass of kids going through
puberty at 8 or 9, I’m still worried about what that means
psychologically,” Mendle says.