Because of the increasing time teenagers spend with peers, social stress becomes particularly important as a threat to their psychological well-being.

Above: Because of the increasing time teenagers spend with peers, social stress becomes particularly important as a threat to their psychological well-being.

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Girls who Start Puberty Early are Less Able to Cope with Stress

Girls who enter puberty early may be less able to cope with being bullied or rejected by other students than their female classmates who mature later, a new University of Florida study finds.

"Although it was expected that early maturing girls would be at greater risk for developing symptoms of depression, anxiety or aggression when they experienced higher levels of peer stress, we also found that they have a tendency to use fewer problem-solving skills, which ultimately increases the likelihood of responding to stress in negative ways," said Julia Graber, a UF psychologist and one of the study's authors.

Because of the increasing time teenagers spend with peers, social stress becomes particularly important as a threat to their psychological well-being, Graber said. Girls are especially vulnerable because they rely heavily on peers for emotional support and intimacy, she said.

The subject is timely as the general trend has been for girls to enter puberty at slightly earlier ages than prior generations, she said.

The study, which actually measured girls' physiological reactions to stress by recording levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, is scheduled to be published in the November edition of the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. The participants were 111 girls between fifth- and eighth-grades who, along with their mothers, were recruited from public schools in ethnically diverse working- and middle-class communities in the New York City area in 1995 and 1996 as part of a larger study.

Mothers and daughters completed surveys and participated in a series of tasks. During a home visit, researchers collected saliva samples to determine levels of cortisol while the girls engaged in a series of neutral and stressful experiences such as completing a timed test, said Lisa Sontag, a UF psychology graduate student who led the study.

"Interestingly, the study found that girls who mature early exhibited higher overall cortisol levels compared to other girls, suggesting that early maturers may have a more difficult time regulating stress levels once they begin to experience feelings of physiological arousal such as their heart beating at a faster rate," Sontag said.

These girls may especially fear being teased about gaining weight or looking more adult-like, she said.

The results also showed that girls who entered puberty early used fewer problem-solving strategies than did on-time or late maturers, Sontag said. And because they were less likely to take steps such as going for a walk to calm themselves down or asking for advice, they internalized much of their distress, she said.

These girls would often think about a problem over and over again and how badly it made them feel, Sontag said. They also reported experiencing more physical symptoms such as stomach cramps and racing heart beats, she said.

"Everybody is going to respond at some level to stressful situations with a degree of sweaty palms, heart racing or getting really angry, but most of us have the ability to actively try to control those responses by saying to ourselves 'It's not that big of a deal' or trying to approach it by fixing the problem," Sontag said. "Girls without coping skills have problems because they have a high level of impulsive responses but don't have the strategies in place to control those responses."

Unfortunately, new technology now allows various forms of cyber bullying involving text messaging, MySpace and Facebook, Graber said.

Another trend that has made bullying easier is bigger schools, Graber said. "On one hand it may give students the opportunity to meet more peers, but there also is the potential to be more isolated with fewer people knowing who you are and for peer group behavior to be monitored less closely than it would be in smaller school environments," she said.

University of Illinois psychology professor Karen D. Rudolph said the study is a "fascinating contribution" to understanding how the timing of girls' pubertal development shapes their social and mental health. "Although it has been known for some time that girls who physically mature earlier than their peers are at greater risk for mental health problems, these findings help to explain why this may be the case — early-maturing girls seem to have more difficulty responding effectively to social stress, a form of stress that they are likely to encounter at some point during adolescence," she said.



Cathy Keen,, 352-392-0186


Julia Graber,, 352-392-7001

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