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Early Puberty and Substance Misuse: What the Research Shows

A teenage girl turning away from a concerned mother.

Parents, quick question: would you go back to your junior high school days again if you could?

Many adults respond to that hypothetical situation with an emphatic “No.” Though they may have fond memories of friends or teachers, they probably recall their pre-adolescent life as being filled with apprehension, indecision and gloominess. 

Such feelings are not uncommon among pre-teenagers. As humans go through puberty, their brains and bodies undergo significant changes that kids struggle to understand and absorb. When you add in peer pressure, a yearning to belong and a judgmental or unsympathetic school population, it becomes clearer why adults would not want to repeat that period of their lives.

To be sure, puberty can be a challenging time for even the most self-assured kids. But there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that puberty, especially early puberty, can play a large role in whether kids turn to drugs or alcohol when they get to be teenagers.

The “What” and “When” of Puberty

When children reach puberty, their pituitary glands begin secreting hormones that enable the production of testosterone and estrogen in boys and girls, respectively. These two sex hormones pave the way for the development of secondary sex characteristics. Physical, vocal and sexual changes occur over a duration of about four years or so until their bodies are fully matured.

The age of the beginning of puberty can vary widely between nine and fourteen for boys and eight and thirteen for girls. But the average age of puberty onset has been decreasing over the past several decades. For example, a century ago the typical age of a girl’s first period (signifying the end of puberty) was sixteen in the U.S. and Europe; today, it’s closer to thirteen.

Furthermore, a substantial number of girls and boys experience what is known as early puberty (or precocious puberty), which can start before the age of eight. This can present problems for these children due to the disconnect between their age-appropriate mental and emotional maturity and their physical maturity.

Early Puberty Associated with Depression

This incongruity can increase the odds of the child experiencing depression or depression-like symptoms. Moreover, researchers have determined that there is a strong relationship between depression and the likelihood or frequency of substance use in the teen years.

Teenage boy witch acne.

A study conducted by scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign followed 160 boys and girls for a three-year period. They regularly asked questions of the participants and their parents about the kids’ psychological and social-behavioral characteristics, and their findings were reported in 2014 in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

The results indicated that girls who went through puberty earlier than their female peers were much more likely to report higher levels of depression throughout the study period. Conversely, early-maturing boys experienced lower levels of depression initially; but at the end of the three-year timeframe, those levels had risen to that of their early-puberty female counterparts.

Depression symptoms among girls going through early puberty can lead to severe problems going forward. Girls in this category are at a heightened risk for disorders relating to regular substance use as well as eating or disruptive disorders. In fact, University of Florida psychologist Dr. Julie Graber said in 2013, "the clearest and most consistent link is between early puberty and depression in girls.”

Early Maturers Often Consume Alcohol or Drugs

Scientists have known for some time that the initiation of substance use is correlated more with kids’ puberty stages instead of their chronological age or scholastic grade level. Back in 2007, the journal Pediatrics published a study which examined over 5700 boys and girls ages 10 to 15 from the U.S. and Australia in the fifth, seventh, and ninth grades. 

Teenage girl being comforted by her mother.

The research focused on the lifetime, recent and daily use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. What the scientists found was that:

  • Kids in the mid-puberty stage were twice as likely to have tried these substances, substantially more likely to have consumed them within the past month and almost twice as likely to be suffering from substance misuse.
  • Kids in the late-puberty stage were three times as likely to have tried these substances, over twice as likely to have consumed them within the past month and more than three times as likely to be suffering from substance misuse.
  • These results were seen independent of the kids’ ages or grade levels.

Nature, Not Nurture

Even though substance misuse can have deleterious effects on early puberty girls, boys who start puberty before their peers don’t avoid negative consequences. A new study published this year in the journal Child Development shed some additional light on the biological processes behind this phenomenon among pre-teen and adolescent males.

Researchers from Purdue University examined data taken from 1989 to 2009 relating to more than 560 boys and their usage patterns of ten different substances (including alcohol, marijuana, inhalants, opiates and other illicit drugs.) The participants were also studied for physical signs of puberty and levels of sex hormones from age 11 until 16.

The Purdue scientists made an interesting finding. White boys who entered puberty earlier were much more likely to be involved in substance use by age 16. But what was intriguing was that the heightened substance use correlated with the timing of the initial discovery of testosterone in the boys’ bodies rather than physical signs of puberty (like facial hair, for instance) or the rate at which the boys progressed through puberty. Such a correlation was not seen in non-white participants.

In other words, the researchers say this increase in substance use involvement suggests “a physiological rather than psychosocial mechanism of association.” This discovery rebuts the hypothesis that early maturing teens are at high risk for regular substance use only because they are often introduced to hazardous behaviors by the older peer groups with whom they fraternize.

Teenage male holding his hands on the top of his head appearing overwhelmed.

Be Observant, Not Alarmed

Physicians hasten to note that the age at which a boy or girl goes through puberty shouldn’t drastically change the way they are being raised by their parents. Rather, parents should simply be aware of some of the possible risks if they notice their children physically maturing earlier than other kids in their age group.

One possible response might be to educate these early puberty children on the available research concerning the link to substance use in adolescence. Some experts suggest a stronger emphasis on teaching these children better coping skills so they are better equipped to deal with issues like peer pressure and substance use.

Above all, parents should keep in mind the comforting words of Dr. Graber: "Even among early maturers, the vast majority will get through puberty fine." And as further research continues on the connection between early-onset puberty and substance misuse, parents, teachers and health care professionals will hopefully create viable strategies to protect these kids from a life troubled by substance use disorder. 

If your pre-teen is struggling with addiction,  contact us today for help.

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