Early puberty affects girls and boys differently in a number of ways. Here are some of the major sex differences related to precocious puberty.
Sex Differences in Prevalence
Girls are more likely to experience early puberty than boys are. A major reason for this difference is that girls generally undergo puberty earlier than boys normally. Girls also exhibit a larger range of puberty onset (9-16 years of age versus 13-15 years of age for boys), making earlier onset more likely.
Sex Differences in Cause
When boys do experience early puberty, it's usually not because of the many psychological causes that have been identified in girls. Instead, boys are more likely to have biological causes for their precocious puberty than girls. In particular, boys with precocious puberty often have abnormalities in their endocrine system, such as issues with adrenal gland or testicular functioning.
Sex Differences in Type of Effects
For many decades researchers believed that boys experience benefits from early puberty while girls experience negative consequences from maturing early. In particular, scientists believed that boys benefit socially from being physically developed because they are likely to be viewed as leaders among their peers. In contrast, girls may feel embarrassed by their early curves and be unready to cope with early sexual advances. While these ideas may be partly correct, recent research indicates that boys who undergo early puberty do have increased levels of psychological distress and adjustment issues compared to their normally-developing peers, just like early-maturing girls do. In other words, boys do not seem to simply benefit from early puberty while girls suffer.
Sex Differences in Severity
Although it seems that boys do experience negative effects from precocious puberty, the effects do not appear to be as negative as they are for girls. For instance, early-maturing boys rarely suffer consequences as severe as full-blown psychological disorders, while early-maturing girls often do. In addition, boys who experience precocious puberty seem to escape issues involving body image, self-esteem and academics that early-maturing girls often experience.
Ge, Xiaojia, Conger, Rand, & Elder, Jr., Glen. Coming of age too early: Pubertal influences on girls' vulnerability to psychological distress. Child Development. 1996. 67: 3386-3400.
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.
University of Michigan Health System. Precocious Puberty (Early Puberty). Accessed on August 26, 2010: http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/puberty.htm