Very Early Behavior Problems, Early Puberty Linked In New Study

A difficult child who experiences social, emotional, or behavior problems at age four or five has a greater risk of experiencing an early puberty — which in turn hints that the problems that cause an early puberty must be due to developmental issues that appear much earlier. That’s the conclusion of an Australian study which followed almost 3,500 children from age four through age 11. The researchers have now published their results in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

And by early puberty, they do mean early — by eight or nine years old.

“There is a heightened risk for behavior and emotional problems during puberty; and children who reach puberty earlier than their peers have more of these difficulties in adolescence,” said Dr. Fiona Mensah, the lead researcher. I’ll say. Can you imagine coping with the stress of a maturing body at age eight?

To the research team, it looked like there may be some other factor — genetic, environmental, or both — in the very early childhood that sets the stage for both the behavior problems and the difficult early puberty. “Early onset puberty and poorer adolescent mental health is due to developmental processes that start well before the onset of puberty,” Mensah added.

Early puberty has been linked to a number of problems in the past. For instance, a study released last fall suggested that if a woman experienced an early puberty, she was at higher risk for heart disease. However, in that study, they weren’t talking about eight year olds. “Early puberty” was defined as puberty before age 12, which is certainly a much broader group of women.

A Michigan State University study released in March suggested that young people actually grow new brain cells during puberty. However, the twist is that the new cells may be specialized to focus on socializing and learning how to attract a mate. It’s easy to see why a too-early focus on sexuality and mating could create devastating social problems for a child in the single digit ages.

How does the timing of the body’s development get so out of whack? The new study doesn’t have the final answer, but it gives us another clue by demonstrating a clear link between the early behavior problems and early puberty.

[children playing photo courtesy Brandt Luke Zorn via Wikipedia Commons]