The Link Between Early Puberty And Mental Health Issues

By Kelly Burch 12/29/17

Researchers observed 7,800 teenage girls into their late twenties and discovered an interesting correlation.

Supportive mother helping her worried teenage daughter

Going through puberty early isn’t just hard for young girls, the emotional and social toll can also have a lasting effect into adulthood, increasing the likelihood that a woman will suffer from depression or engage in antisocial behavior, according to new research. 

A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that girls who had their first period early were more likely to have negative mental health consequences which lasted through early adulthood. The earlier a girl got her period, the more severe the health effects were. 

“Interestingly, the magnitude of the association between puberty and these psychological difficulties remains stable, meaning that puberty is as strongly associated with depressive symptoms and antisocial behavior during adulthood as it is during adolescence,” Jane Mendle, lead study author and a researcher at Cornell University, told Reuters.  

“This suggests that the psychological vulnerability of earlier puberty lingers longer than we previously may have expected,” she said. “It’s not simply a question of adolescent growing pains.”

For the study, researchers interviewed 7,800 women. They were each interviewed four times between the ages of 16 and 28 and asked about their behaviors and mental health experiences. 

On average, the women reported having their first period at age 12. Girls who went through early puberty were more likely to engage in behavior that led to lying, stealing, trespassing and drug use, the interviews showed. 

Researchers did not examine what caused the differences in outcomes based on the time of first menstruation. However, it’s been well-documented in the past that the physical changes that accompany puberty can be taxing for girls. Having to cope with these stressors and changes can also leave them vulnerable, researchers said. 

In addition, girls who appear more physically mature might be more likely to socialize with older teens, which can increase the likelihood of risky behavior, said Dr. Ellen Selkie, an adolescent medicine specialist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who wrote an editorial that accompanied the study. 

“From a social standpoint, girls who develop early tend to be treated like they are older than they really are,” she said. “But that also means they could be involved in things that they aren’t really mature enough for. That sense of not really belonging can lead to mood problems and acting out—which we know can set up a pattern of behavior that leads to adult problems as well.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.