Early puberty tied to behavioural, emotional problems in teens

06 Jul 2021

In lower-income countries, earlier and faster pubertal development may be detrimental to mental health and may promote risky behaviours, a recent study has found.

Researchers longitudinally assessed 1,784 urban black youth from South Africa, who had participated in the Birth to Twenty Plus cohort study. The interaction of age at menarche and latent classes of pubertal timing and tempo with adolescent emotional and behavioural problems was evaluated.

Boys who reached puberty earlier and had faster pubertal timing, as measured according to male genital development, were significantly more likely to initiate risky behaviours. In particular, they were nearly six times as likely to show high- vs low-risk patterns (adjusted odds ratio [aOR], 5.7, 95 percent confidence interval [CI], 1.7–19.06).

A similar effect was reported in girls, though to a notably lesser magnitude. Faster breast development increased the likelihood of high-risk behavioural patterns by almost four times (aOR, 3.45, 95 percent CI, 1.13–10.49).

Pubertal timing also seemed to disrupt emotions in teens, the researchers found. In boys, a faster pubertal tempo correlated with externalizing problems in early adolescence, along with oppositional defiant attitudes in mid-adolescence. Slower pubertal timing, in contrast, had a protective effect.

In comparison, girls who reached puberty relatively early had greater internalizing and externalizing problems in mid-adolescence, as well as higher dieting behaviours during early and late adolescence.

“Similar associations of pubertal timing and tempo with adolescent mental health and risk behaviour initiation seen in high-income countries were observed in South Africa, a middle-income country,” the researchers said. “Early maturers in low- and middle-income countries may benefit from efforts to promote mental health and prevent and mitigate risk behaviours in adolescence.”

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