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Pubertal timing and externalizing problem behaviors in adolescents: A review of literature.


Puberty that marks the beginning of adolescence is generally considered as a period of rapid growth and dramatic changes (Rogol, Roemmich and Clark, 2002). It entails series of stepwise biological changes such as, sexual maturation, increase in height and weight, skeletal growth completion, changes in body composition and development of secondary sex characteristics that enable a child to attain adult form. These bodily changes in turn are known to influence adolescent's behavior (Angold, Costello, Erkanli and Worthman, 1999; Negriff and Susman, 2011) making it necessary to study impact of puberty on psychological adjustment of adolescents. One of the ways of studying this impact is through pubertal timing.

The concept of Pubertal timing arises from this observation that despite the fact puberty is a biological concept, the physical changes accompanying it are overt and are visible to everyone, due to which puberty carries psychological and social importance (Graber, Nichols and Brooks-Gunn, 2010). Pubertal timing involves comparing physical maturational level of same age and same gender peers because large variations exist in the timing of the onset of puberty within each gender and these variations that arise as a result of either genetic influences, environmental factors like family stressful life events, behavioral problems or nutritional factors such as self-induced restriction of energy intake and heavy exercise training (Rogol, Clark and Roemmich, 2000) are potent predictors of adolescent mental health as they are of personal as well as social significance. It been found that timing effects through social paths or contexts are less related to the individual's development than social reference that places a value on normative versus non-normative development meaning that deviations in one's physical development from that of peers has a strong influence on the psychological development of an adolescent.

In order to explain the differential consequences of off-time maturation two hypotheses were formulated (Peterson and Taylor, 1980). The pubertal transitions occurring off-time, meaning occurring later or earlier than anticipated may result in a crisis for an individual (Neugarten and Hagestad, 1976). In simple words the off time or maturational deviance hypothesis explains that during pubertal transition, a period characterized by heightened vulnerabilities, early or late pubertal timing places adolescents out of sync with other normative experiences of their peers, as a result both early and late maturers become more prone to adjustment difficulties due to their perceived lack of shared experiences with other on-timers. So, in this way this hypothesis is rooted in the deviance proposition, which maintains that departures from the normal social timing puts one in the deviant category compared to same sex age-mates. It has received much empirical support (Graber, Lewinsohn, Seeley and Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Moreover, it is further explained that off time development in adolescents generates high emotional arousal because they consider themselves as minority in comparison to those who are on-time in their maturation (Simmons and Blyth, 1987). This transitional stress is hypothesized to increase vulnerability to adjustment problems (Caspi and Moffitt, 1991). Off-time maturers usually find themselves lacking family and social support characterizing on-time maturers and this leads in development of internalizing and externalizing behavior problems as coping mechanisms in response to the stress.

A related view emphasizes that early maturers due to their more developed physical stature face more societal pressures that pushes them towards performing adult roles for which they are not cognitively and emotionally mature. Society views them as adults on account of their developed bodies but in contrast to their outward appearance early maturing adolescents lack proper adaptive skills required for performing developmental tasks of next stage. This mismatch is referred to as "maturity gap" as biological maturity does not correspond to the social maturity and thus creating gap. In addition this gap between physical and psychosocial maturity places early maturers at risk for developing behavior problems that are ways of adjusting this disparity. This explanation is also named as maturity disparity hypothesis (Ge and Natsuaki, 2009) or early maturing hypothesis.

Peskin and Livson (1973) explain that differences noted between early and late maturers may be result of the amount of time available for continued ego development prior to the onset of puberty. According to this perspective early maturation would manifest adjustment problems as it interrupts the stabilized acquisition and consolidation of adaptive skills that are essential for next stage. It means that maturing early leads to missed opportunity of completing developmental tasks of middle childhood that eventually helps to face further challenges of adolescence with appropriate skills. Adolescents who mature earlier are not sufficiently prepared to face the cognitive as well as emotional demands of puberty. This approach is also supported by the view that higher rates of psychopathology among early maturers is to be expected because their slow developing neurocognitive systems are mismatched with the fast-approaching social and affecting challenges at the onset of puberty (Nelson, Leibenluft, McClure and Pine, 2005).

Simply put, the above approaches tend to provide a rationale for explaining pubertal timing effects. Since, puberty is a biological phenomenon that occurs within some social context and because it seems reasonable to expect that pubertal timing will have different implications in different social/cultural contexts and perhaps also in different psychological contexts (i.e., different individual personality characteristics) it becomes important to consider other psychological and social factors with pubertal timing as they will lead to achieve better understanding of as to why early maturing or off-time developers as opposed to other adolescents, display more adjustment difficulties. Thus, apart from these explanations other models namely; personal accentuation model (Caspi and Moffit, 1991) that takes into account the individual dispositional characteristics in preventing maladaptive outcomes, the peer socialization model (Stattin and Magnusson, 1990) that relates early pubertal timing with behavioral outcomes by stressing on the peer relationships of early maturers and contextual amplification model laying stress on person-environment interaction in explaining the link between early puberty and problem behavior, are also investigated.

Problem behavior is defined as an act of person who either exerts significant negative impact on his or her quality of life or the quality of life of others or forms significant risk to the health and safety to oneself or others and when these acts are expressed through aggression, impulsivity, antisocial and challenging behavior they are considered as externalizing behaviors (Achenbach, Howell, Quay and Conners, 1991).

Pubertal Timing And Externalzing Problem Behaviors : Caspi, Lynam, Moffitt and Silva (1993) in their work studied the relationship between pubertal timing and female delinquency. They also inspected role of different schools context on the relationship between pubertal maturation and behavioral changes. For this purpose they followed a cohort of New Zealand girls from childhood through adolescence that consisted of 297 girls with ages 13 to 15 years, out of which 132 girls attended mixed gender secondary schools and 165 attended all-girl secondary schools. Age at menarche was considered as index of pubertal development and on this basis girls were classified into three menarcheal groups; early (before or at 12.5 years), on-time (12.6 years to 13.6 years) and late (13.7 years or older). The results confirmed that girls with earlier maturation in mixed-gender settings were at greatest risk for delinquency because of their affiliation with delinquent peers. Moreover, early maturing girls in mixed gender schools maintained their delinquent BEHAVIOR than early maturing girls in same-gender schools. Over all, early maturing girls (at both 13 and 15 years) engaged in more delinquent behaviors than their on-time or late maturing counterparts and this effect was more pronounced among early maturing girls attending mixed-gender schools. The school context significantly moderated the effect of earlier maturation at both times.

In a study involving both genders, Flannery, Rowe and Gulley (1993) reported higher levels of delinquent behaviors by early maturing girls and boys. On a sample of adolescent boys, the relationship between pubertal timing and self- reported delinquency was tested by Williams and Dunlop (1999). The results for pubertal timing based on PDS depicted both early and late maturing boys to show more delinquency while in case of perceived pubertal timing only late maturation was associated with greater delinquency and early maturation with lowest levels of delinquency. Overall, the results supported the deviance hypothesis of pubertal timing.

In contrast to the findings of the above, study by Ge, Conger and Elder. (2001b) obtained different results in their longitudinal research examining the relationship between puberty and externalized hostile feelings. The results of this study were based on data obtained from the Iowa Youth and Families Project that included families of seventh graders living with both parents available for all 4 waves. The adolescents were 12-14 years (Mean age=12.68, SD=0.55) of age at the first wave. It was found that early maturing boys significantly differed from the on-time and late maturing boys on their feelings of hostility at all assessment time periods (7th, 8th and 10th grades) as they scored more on these symptoms. In addition pubertal timing (as a continuous variable) significantly predicted hostile feelings in grades 8th, 9th and 10th. The interaction between pubertal timing and concurrent stressful life events was also associated with hostile feelings in all grades showing that early maturing adolescent boys are more vulnerable to life stressors. In other studies too early maturation was found to be associated with higher levels of delinquency in case of males. For instance, in work of Cota-Robles, Neiss and Rowe (2002) that involved sample of 5,550 boys (11-17 years) early maturing boys reported more on both nonviolent and violent delinquent activities than their on-time and late maturing peers. Even Ge, Brody, Conger, Simons and McBride-Murray (2002) examined pubertal transition effects on externalizing behavior problems under different contexts on a sample of African American 400 boys and 467 girls of ages 10-12 years. The results pointed that both early maturing girls and boys exhibited more externalizing behaviors than their on-time and late maturing peers. Apart from this, it was found that parenting styles moderated the relationship between early maturation and externalizing problems as early maturing children with harsh and inconsistent parents experienced more of these problems. Early maturing boys with neighborhood disadvantaged affiliated more with deviant peers.

Haynie (2003) tested different contexts that linked pubertal development with delinquency on a large sample of 5,477 adolescent girls from grades 7 through 12. Three types of delinquent behaviors were assessed; involvement in party deviance, minor delinquency and serious delinquency. On summarizing, the results of this study evidence earlier developing girls to indulge in more delinquent acts such as disorderly conduct, group fights, school truancy, robbery, lying, vandalism, stealing, shoplifting etc. Furthermore, this puberty delinquency association was found to be mediated by socialization with delinquent peers, involvement in romantic relationships and parent child relationships. It was found that peer contexts provide opportunities for early maturing girls to affiliate with deviant peers that push them to get involved in delinquent activities and romantic relations that serve as an avenue for them to try on adult like behaviors.

The links between girl's violent behavior, pubertal timing and neighborhood characteristics were investigated by Obeidallah, Brennan, Brooks-Gunn, and Earls (2004). The average age of the girls at two cohorts were 13.47 at W1 and 15.58 at W2. Age at menarche was considered to form early, on-time and late pubertal timing groups and violent behavior of these girls was assessed by Self-Report of Offending Scale. Results of this study did not show main effect of pubertal timing but differences in violent behaviors of early maturing girls were found in respect to their neighborhood characteristics such that early maturing girls living in neighborhoods of greater concentration disadvantage were at greater risk for manifesting violence than on-time and late maturing girls living in the same neighborhood. Additionally, it was noticed that girls who matured early in neighborhoods of higher concentrated disadvantage performed three times more violent acts than early maturing girls belonging to less disadvantaged neighborhoods. In other words, disadvantaged neighborhood contexts amplified negative effects of early timing.

The association between early pubertal timing and aggression and delinquency was examined by Lynne, Graber, Nichols, Brooks-Gunn and Botvin (2007) in a sample (N=1366) of African American and Latino males and females. Also, the pathways that linked this association were evaluated longitudinally across grades 6th, 7 and 8th. The mean age for this sample at the beginning of 6th grade was 11.68 years. The results showed significant main effect of pubertal timing on aggression as well as on delinquency where early maturing adolescents reported the highest on these behaviors in comparison to their on-time and late maturing counterparts and these outcomes did not differ by gender or ethnicity. Most importantly, peers delinquency in 6th grade was found to fully mediate the association of early puberty with aggression and delinquency at all points in time.

On 297 participants of ages 9 to 16 years relationship between pubertal timing, parental control and problem behaviors was studied by Arim and Shapka (2008). Pubertal timing was found to effect adolescents externalizing behaviors significantly and early maturers scored most on these behavioral problems than their on-time and late maturing peers. In addition, interaction between pubertal timing and maternal psychological control showed that early maturing boys and girls who perceived their mothers as more controlling experienced more externalizing problems.

On examining the relationship between pubertal development and delinquency in a sample of 241 males and 213 females, Negriff, fung and Trickett (2008) found that continuous early pubertal timing was related with higher delinquent behavior (running away from home, damaging property etc.) and this relationship was not moderated by gender nor maltreatment.

Mrug et al. (2008) in their work examined whether positive parenting practices such as nurturance, communication, and knowledge of the child's activities interacted with pubertal timing to influence early maturing adolescent girl's delinquency and aggression. This cross-sectional study involved sample of an ethnically diverse (African American, Hispanic, non-Hispanic white and others) cohort of 330 fifth-grade girls from 3 metropolitan areas that provide information regarding their aggression levels (physical, non-physical and relational aggression) measured by Problem behavior Frequency scale. Delinquency was assessed via questions on fighting, running away from home and truancy. Girls with onset of menarche at one year before the average age of onset for each ethnic group (as reported in a recent national study) were taken as early maturers. Early maturation was directly found related with delinquency regardless of caregiver's nurturance, communication and knowledge but not for aggression. Maternal nurturance, communication with parents and parental knowledge of the child's activities were found to moderate the association between early puberty and relational aggression, meaning that early maturation was a risk factor for aggressive behavior only when combined with low levels of these parenting variables and not at high levels of these parental factors. In other words, the findings of this study highlighted that for early maturing girls parenting plays an important protective role in behavioral adjustment.

Negriff and Trickett (2010) on a total sample comprising of maltreated and comparison adolescents aged 9 to13 years evaluated relationship of pubertal timing and delinquency across two points (Time 1 and Time 2). At both Times 1 and 2 cross-sectionally a significant relationship was found between pubertal timing and delinquency indicating early maturation to be related with elevated levels of delinquent behavior. Moreover, since interaction between pubertal timing and gender was not found significant this relationship of early puberty with delinquency was same for males and females. Also, maltreatment was not found to moderate the association between pubertal timing and delinquency as early pubertal timing was seen related to increased levels of delinquency in both maltreatment and comparison groups. Furthermore, multiple group models were employed to test the differences between maltreated males, maltreated females, comparison males and comparison females. Results did show some evidence for the three way interactions highlighting importance of contexts that may influence the relationship of pubertal timing with such problem behaviors.

Stattin, Kerr and Skoog (2011) integrated two models of pubertal timing, peer socialization and contextual amplification in order to explain the link between early puberty and problem behaviors in girls. For this reason they tested these models in two different studies conducted in Sweden. The first study was cross-sectional in nature that included 284 girls of grades 8th and 9th. Their age at menarche was used as indicator of pubertal timing and information regarding their school and free time peers was obtained. At first, relationship between age at menarche and the activities girls did with their free time as well as school friends was evaluated and results indicated early pubertal timing to be associated with higher frequency of norm breaking activities with free time peers but not with school peers. In addition pubertal timing was significantly related to age, intoxication frequency and delinquency of the free time peers outside the school. In a way context of school inhibited the opportunities for early maturing girls to meet older deviant peers. These findings supported peer socialization hypothesis as early maturing girls were found to affiliate with older peers outside the school who performed more of delinquent behaviors.

In next study, both longitudinal (N=434) and cross sectional sample (N=634) of girls were undertaken and context of leisure time settings was tested to see whether it accentuated the peer-socialization effect. It was found that delinquency was high among those early maturing girls who spent time in this context of free-time as they were most involved with older peers and boys high on norm-breaking activities. In this way this study showed that certain contexts facilitate peer socialization and in turn amplify peer socialization effect.

The interaction effect of perceived pubertal timing and peer stress on symptoms of aggression was studied by Sontag, Graber, and Clemans (2011) on a sample of 264 adolescents. Main effect of pubertal timing was found such that early maturation in girls was positively associated with overt aggression but no such relation was observed for relational aggression. Even interaction between peer stress and early timing was found significant for both overt and relational aggression in girls, where early maturing girls with high peer stress displayed the highest rates of both overt and relational aggression. However, in boys main effect of pubertal timing was not significant in case of both overt and relational aggression but an interaction was seen between late maturers and peer stress for relational aggression suggesting late maturing boys with high peer stress experience more aggression problems. This study showed that peer stress amplifies effect of early maturation in adolescents.

On a sample of black girls (African American=412, Caribbean Black=195; Mean age= 15 years) Carter, Caldwell, Matsuko, Antonucci and Jackson (2011) investigated the independent influence of perceived pubertal timing and age of menarche on externalizing behaviors. Results indicated perceived pubertal timing and not age menarche to be significantly related to Caribbean girls externalizing behaviors but for African American adolescent girls this relationship was not found to be significant. In other words the pubertal timing effects were moderated by ethnic sub-group where Caribbean black girls who perceived their development early demonstrated more symptoms of oppositional defiance disorder in comparison to other Caribbean girls who perceived their maturation as on-time or late.

White, Deardorff, Liu and Gonzales (2013) investigated the moderating role of neighborhood contexts described along two dimensions; ethnic concentration and socioeconomic disadvantage in the relationship between pubertal timing and externalizing symptoms among Mexican-origin boys. The participants in this study were 7th graders (N=353, Mean age=12.8 years) who were again assessed in 10th grade on externalizing symptoms through Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children. The results revealed that early pubertal timing associated with adrenal maturation (in 7th grade) significantly predicted increase in externalizing behavior of boys in 10th grade but only for those who lived in neighborhoods low on Latino ethnic concentration and this relationship was not found to be moderated by neighborhood disadvantage.

In another study (Deardorff et al., 2013) results were based on data from three waves (5th, 7th and 10th grades) of 362 Mexican girls and their mothers. It was seen that relation of pubertal timing with externalizing symptoms of oppositional defiant and conduct problems was moderated by harsh parenting for daughters with Mexican American mothers, meaning that at high levels of harsh parenting there was a positive relation between pubertal timing and externalizing symptoms, such that girls with earlier pubertal timing exhibited increased levels of externalizing symptoms, whereas as at low levels of harsh parenting there was a negative association between pubertal timing and externalizing symptoms, such that girls with earlier pubertal timing had fewer externalizing symptoms. For daughters with Mexican immigrant mothers, pubertal timing was not directly related to externalizing symptoms and no moderation effect of harsh parenting was observed but mediation effect of harsh parenting was found significant. The crux of this study was that early pubertal timing was not found to directly affect the development of externalizing symptoms in girls but other factors such as harsh parenting and maternal immigrant status influenced these behavioral outcomes.

Mrug et al. (2013) in their 5 year longitudinal study examined how early puberty related with aggressive and delinquent behavior in adolescent girls aged 11-16 years. Data was collected from 2607 girls who had mean ages of 11.1 years at wave 1, 13.1 years at wave 2 and 16.1 years at wave 3. Girls were classified as early maturers according to the average age of years for all the different ethnic groups (Black, Hispanic, non-Hispanic white, Asian and Native American). Results showed early maturation in girls to be associated with increased delinquent behavior as well as physical aggression at age 11 and this relationship remained stable at all times for delinquency but for physical aggression it dissipated over time. In addition, early puberty was not found to be related with relational and non-physical aggression. This study also highlighted that early puberty in girls increases vulnerability to negative peer influences. On testing the peer socialization and contextual amplification models for explaining the relationship between early puberty and problem behavior in girls.

Chen, Yu, Wu and Zhang (2015) examined role of pubertal timing as well as stressful life events on depression among 4, 228 Chinese adolescents aged 12-15 years. Results showed that both early maturing boys and girls had significantly higher levels of delinquency than their on-time or late maturing peers. In addition, stressful life events were found to intensify effects of early maturation on girl's and boy's delinquency.

Dimer and Natsuaki (2015) used meta-analytic approach to investigate the association between early pubertal timing and externalizing behaviors in adolescents. The findings revealed a small but significant effect size of early pubertal maturation on externalizing behaviors (r = 0.180) showing early maturation to be related with higher levels of externalizing behaviors.

The present study has evidenced that the mental health professionals and counselors who are dealing with prevention and treatment of internalizing and externalizing problem behaviors in adolescents should focus on the links with attachment to parents and pubertal timing. Our findings further advanced the understanding of the influences of pubertal timing and perceived parental attachments by indicating their interaction effect as early pubertal maturation placed adolescents at increased risk for problem behaviors under lower parent-adolescent attachment levels. Thus, more attention should be given to identifying different contexts that are salient in differentiating as who will experience more problems and who will make the pubertal transitions without such adjustment difficulties. In future, research work should focus on examining potential moderators or mediators between pubertal timing and problem behaviors as the relationship between pubertal timing and psychosocial adjustment can be affected by the different biological, cognitive, emotional and cultural factors. Also, the longitudinal methods can be used as they will enhance the inference of causality within the significant relationships. In addition long term effects of pubertal timing on the problem behaviors should also be inspected.


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Rupan Dhillon (*) and Palak Kanwar (**)

(*) Assistant Professor, (**) Research Fellow, Department of Psychology, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India

Received : February 10,2018

Revised : March 11,2018

Accepted : April 27, 2018
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Author:Dhillon, Rupan; Kanwar, Palak
Publication:Indian Journal of Community Psychology
Date:Sep 1, 2018
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