Sunday, February 7, 2016

Puberty: Getting more than you hoped

When I was growing up, all the girls read Are you There God? It's Me Margaret., by Judy Blume. Its main character, Margaret, looks forward to developing breasts and getting her first menstrual period. When these finally occur she feels triumphant! More recently, Hello Flo advertisements also portray puberty as something that girls desire: they are upset if menstruation doesn't start quickly enough. Of course, fiction writing and advertisements may not reflect the full story of girls' puberty as witnessed by these memes:

Keenan, Culbert, Grimm, Hipwell, and Stepp (2014) investigated the relationship between African-American and European-American girls' pubertal timing (what age things happen), pubertal tempo (how much time passes between stages of puberty; how long puberty lasts), and depression symptoms. Their sample was part of the longitudinal Pittsburgh Girls Study, so it was large (more than 2,000 girls of diverse backgrounds), data were collected at age 10 and then each year for up to a decade, and the participants were more likely to come from low-income homes.

Each year the girls completed a depression inventory; their caregivers (mostly mothers) completed the same depression inventory about their daughters. From this Keenan et al. could learn how many depression symptoms were common at each age and see how they related to the other variables of ethnicity and puberty. Overall, depression symptoms were highest at age 10 and declined at various rates after that. Even so, across the decade the girls reported that only one or two symptoms on average. The authors maintained that even "minor depression" like this can put individuals at risk for other problems.

The girls provided data on pubertal timing and tempo by matching themselves to standard pictures that portrayed different stages of breast and pubic hair development, and by indicating if they had gotten their first period. One of these scales was also completed by the caregivers in reference to their daughters' development.

The results replicated past research in that the earliest maturing girls (early pubertal timing for breast and pubic hair development) reported more depression symptoms at age 10 than later maturing girls (late pubertal timing). A new finding was that girls who were late to develop breasts (late pubertal timing) and also had a slow pubertal tempo (change progressed slowly) also reported more depression symptoms. There was no effect on depression related to the development of pubic hair and pubertal tempo.

Similar to past research, African-American girls reported slightly higher depression symptoms. For example, at age 10 African-American girls reported one extra depression symptom compared to European-American girls. Likewise, African-American girls demonstrated earlier pubertal timing: pubic hair development occurred almost nine months earlier and breast development began about eleven months earlier than what was reported by European-American girls. Keenan et al. added to the literature by suggesting a trend: African-American girls demonstrated a little slower pubertal tempo, meaning that they took just ever so slightly longer to pass through the stages of puberty compared to the European-American girls. This trend requires further investigation in future research.

New and most importantly, the relationship between depression, ethnicity, and pubertal timing was significant. The ethnic difference in depression symptoms at age 10 (their peak) was reduced up to 32% when pubertal timing was factored in. Pubertal tempo did not have a similar effect. Thus, a considerable portion of the ethnic difference in depression can be explained by African-American girls' earlier entry into puberty compared to European-American girls.

In explaining their findings Keenan et al. suggested that sex hormones might be to blame for at least some of the low level depression seen in preteen girls. Girls with an earlier pubertal timing have higher levels of sex hormones like estrogen compared to girls who have not yet begun pubertal development. This biological argument would, at least in part, explain African-American girls' slightly higher rates of depression.

On the other hand, the authors predicted that a slow pubertal tempo would also predict higher levels of depression because it would mean exposure to high levels of hormones for an extended period of time. In this study, only for girls with later breast development (which implies lower hormone levels) did slow pubertal tempo predict slightly higher depression symptoms. As well, slow pubertal tempo did not explain any of the differences in depression between African- and European-American girls. So hormones cannot be the only explanation for girls' depression symptoms during puberty.

One possibility is that girls receive feedback based on their development that makes them self-conscious. Increases in estrogen cause weight gain so an early maturing girl may feel overweight compared to other girls. Breast development, a sign of puberty that is visible to others, may be desired to attract dating partners - so later maturing girls (especially those with a slow tempo) might be embarrassed by smaller breasts (but not care about lacking pubic hair, a trait that is not socially visible). Conversely, early breast development may bring with it unwanted sexual attention and comments that are uncomfortable for a young girl to navigate. It is also possible that early development of breasts and early menarche may lead parents to treat girls differently: for example, fathers may be less affectionate with their daughters once puberty begins. Parents, fearing sexual experimentation, sexually transmitted infections, teen pregnancy, or sexual assault may also impose new limits on what an early maturing girl can wear, where she can go, and whom she can be with. These sorts of social factors could also explain some of the low level depression seen in preteen girls.


The Keenan et al. (2014) article is available online and through your local college library.

Parents are not the only ones who may regulate girls bodies once puberty begins. Read an article in The Atlantic magazine by Li Zhou: "The Sexism of School Dress Codes."

Starting at puberty, girls and women are twice as likely as boys and men to suffer from depression. This also means that depression symptoms might be missed in males because we are not expecting them to be depressed. Counselor and writer, Michael Gurian, explains some possible symptoms to look for in boys:

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