Does early maturity make for a mean girl?

Many parents of pubescent and pre-pubescent girls encounter troubling behaviors among their daughters between the ages of 10 and 13. The apple of your eye may begin to talk back to you, choose questionable friends or dabble in mean girl behavior. It is worrisome. But a study published in the January issue of Pediatrics that linked early puberty in girls with relationships with more deviant peers, susceptibility to negative peer pressure and higher levels of delinquent and aggressive behaviors may sound an unnecessary alarm.

Previous studies have suggested a link between early puberty and behavioral and emotional problems in girls, but the researchers’ recommendations—specifically limiting association with deviant peers for early maturing girls—should apply to all adolescents, says Diane Stafford, MD, attending physician in endocrinology at Boston Children’s Hospital.

This recent study in Pediatrics of 2,607 girls and their parents focused on interviews at ages 11, 13 and 16 years. Girls and their parents were questioned about age of menarche (first period), best friend’s deviant behaviors like alcohol or drug use, delinquency and aggression.

The researchers defined 16 percent of girls as early maturers, or onset of menarche before age 11 years.

They observed a relationship between early puberty and elevated delinquency at age 11 and also found a stronger link between best friend’s deviance and delinquency among early maturers.

But these connections may not be so simple.

“The problem with studies like this is that they’re difficult to interpret, because there are so many variables. It’s impossible to control for them all, and many are ignored in the discussion as a result,” explains Stafford.

In other words, problem behaviors and susceptibility to negative peer influence are multifactorial. Girls who begin puberty earlier are often perceived as older but may lack the psychological maturity to react appropriately to peer pressure and the influence of friends engaging in deviant behavior.

This may provide a partial explanation for early maturers’ vulnerability to negative peer influences.

However, other factors also drive behavior.

“If you see disconcerting patterns, like aggressive behavior or deviant friends, address it early. – Diane Stafford

For example, the population in this study was more heavily weighted toward girls from lower socio-economic backgrounds—a group that is at risk for problem behaviors. It is very difficult to separate the influence of various factors on behavior. Implying that behavior may be linked to a single physical cause may alarm some parents, says Stafford.

The researchers attempted to offer parents some tools to counteract these behaviors; they recommended increased emotional and social support for early-maturing girls to help decrease their susceptibility to negative peer influences.

Given that most adolescents are vulnerable at various times, Stafford advises all parents to follow general best practices in parenting. “Be engaged and involved. Inquire about your daughter’s friends, where she is going, what she is doing. If you see disconcerting patterns, like aggressive behavior or deviant friends, address it early.”