WebMD Medical News
Louise Chang, MD
Nov. 15, 2007 -- Findings from a newly published study support the idea that
family conflict can influence the timing of puberty in girls.
Bruce Ellis, PhD, of the University of Arizona, and Marilyn Essex, PhD, of
the University of Wisconsin, followed children from preschool to middle
childhood. They also conducted interviews with the children's parents to assess
family stresses, including economic difficulty, marital problems, parental depression, and parenting style.
They found that girls living in families with greater parental support and
less marital conflict experienced their first hormonal changes later than other
children. Marital conflict, poor parent support, and depression among fathers,
but not mothers, was associated with earlier puberty.
The results suggest that even modest family conflict or stress may influence a young girl's sexual development,
Essex tells WebMD.
"These were the normal stresses of growing up, not serious abuses,"
The study is published in the November/December issue of the journal
The new research adds support to the theory that earlier sexual development
among girls in response to family and other stress may have an evolutionary
The thinking is that children who grow up under stressful, and potentially
dangerous, conditions have a better chance of having their genes survive if
they reach sexual maturity earlier.
But in modern society, early puberty among girls is a risk factor for many
health problems, including depression and other mood disorders, substance
abuse, early pregnancy, STDs, and cancers of the reproductive system.
"From a public health standpoint, stemming the high incidence of early
puberty among girls would be beneficial," child development researcher Jean
Brooks-Gunn, PhD, tells WebMD.
Her own research at New York's Columbia University shows that girls who
reach sexual maturity early are at increased risk for psychological problems,
aggression, and being abused by a partner.
The most important factor for determining when a girl will reach puberty is
the timing of her mother's first menstruation.
But it is increasingly clear that factors other than genes are at play in
the sexual maturation of girls.
There is growing evidence, for example, that being overweight early in life
is associated with early puberty.
Brooks-Gunn says the new findings on family stress point to the complexity
of the timing of sexual maturity in girls.
"What is it about conflict in the house or having a father who is
depressed that translates into earlier puberty?" she asks. "That is the
interesting question to me. There are many possible answers, but we don't
really understand this yet."
SOURCES: Ellis, B., Child Development, November/December, 2007;
online edition. Bruce J. Ellis, PhD, professor of family studies and human
development, University of Arizona, Tucson. Jean Brooks-Gunn, PhD, professor of
child development, Columbia University, New York.
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