Early Puberty in Girls: Moving on Too Soon
Some psychologists believe that development must occur in a certain order in order to be optimal. For instance, children must experience certain social, cognitive and emotional milestones before they are ready to endure the rigors of adolescence. If puberty occurs too early, they may still be completing some of the necessary psychological development of childhood when puberty arrives. As a result, early-maturing girls may become overwhelmed by the stressors of adolescence and the many changes that accompany puberty. As a result, early puberty in girls has a negative impact. There is some research evidence in support of this explanation, which is called the "stage termination hypothesis". In particular, early-maturing tweens do seem to be more susceptible to stress than their normally-developing peers.
Feeling Different Than Peers
Another explanation for why early puberty in girls causes a negative impact considers how a tween compares to his or her peers. This explanation, called the "deviance hypothesis", contends that any departure from the average developmental time line is stressful. In other words, children and tweens fare best when they experience developmental milestones around the same time as most of their peers. In support of this theory, it has been found that both early-maturing and late-maturing adolescents are more distressed than "on-time" adolescents.
Experiencing Too Many Transitions at OnceFinally, some psychologists believe that the stress of simultaneous transitions best explains the negative impact of early puberty in girls. Supporters of the "multiple transition hypothesis" contend that tweens do best when they only have to handle one or two major life transitions at any given time. If puberty arrives so early that it coincides with other transitions - such as the transition from elementary to middle school - then the tween may experience greater stress than his or her peers. There is some research support for this hypothesis. For instance, boys who mature around the start of junior high have been found to be more distressed than those who experience puberty slightly later.
Why These Hypotheses Matter
All in all, it is currently unclear exactly why premature puberty has such a negative impact on tweens. With further research, scientists may pinpoint which of these hypotheses - or combination of them - provides the best explanation. When they do, we will hopefully also learn how best to combat the disturbing consequences of early puberty. This is especially important as early puberty becomes increasingly common.
Ge, Xiaojia, Conger, Rand, & Elder, Jr., Glen. The relation between puberty and psychological distress in adolescent boys. Journal of Research on Adolescence. 2001. 11:49-70.