Adolescent development is often examined in terms of how early or late a teen enters puberty. Phenomena such as depression, for instance, have been linked in some studies to boys’ starting puberty later than their peers and to girls’ starting earlier. Those who study such matters refer to this aspect of progress from childhood to adulthood as “timing.”
Compared to timing, the “tempo” of that progress has received far less recognition for its potential impact on teens’ attitudes, behavior and overall health. But new research to be published in the September issue of the journal Developmental Psychology suggests that tempo -- the speed with which a person moves from the earliest stage of puberty to full sexual maturity -- may be at least as important as the timing of the puberty’s onset.
Researchers applied sophisticated modeling techniques to compare the relative effects of timing and tempo using data collected over six years for 737 white teenagers.
Their key finding was that those who move more swiftly through puberty are more likely to act out and to suffer from anxiety and depression. Those effects were more striking among females than males. And while timing and tempo each individually affected girls’ risk of negative behaviors, the two factors seemed to work in concert among males. Girls who started puberty early were at similar risk of behavior problems as girls who moved quickly through puberty, the study found, whereas boys who started later and also moved slowly through puberty showed the least acting out and externalizing behaviors.
The researchers surmise that, just as early onset of puberty might catch kids off guard, forcing them to deal with physical changes that they might not be emotionally or psychologically prepared for, so might a swift course of puberty make it hard for them to keep up with the rapid changes in their bodies and emotions.
This research will undoubtedly prove valuable to other scientists who study adolescent health. For me, though, it’s a reminder of how vexing a time adolescence can be and of the powerful, hormone-driven forces teens have to deal with. I’ll try to keep that in mind next time a teenager I know exasperates me.