Early puberty: Hormones and behaviour linked in primary school boys

Australian scientists have discovered that an early stage of puberty known as adrenarche, which children go through at about eight or nine years of age, may be responsible for emotional and behavioural problems in boys.Ever wondered why your eight-year-old son seems suddenly moody and fractious, falling out with friends or bursting into tears at the slightest provocation? Well, it may just be his hormones.

Puberty has long been blamed – with significant scientific justification – for dramatic shifts in emotional and social behaviour, particularly among girls. But Australian scientists have for the first time shown that an early stage of puberty known as adrenarche, which children go through at about eight or nine years of age, may be responsible for similar emotional and behavioural problems in boys.

In a study of more than 1200 Victorian primary school students, researchers at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute found that boys with higher levels of the adrenal androgens – hormones like testosterone – also reported higher levels of behavioural and emotional problems.

The longitudinal research, known as the Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study, follows the children from year 3 onwards, charting hormonal changes alongside social and emotional changes, through questionnaires and saliva samples. The most recent finding has been published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Professor George Patton, head of adolescent health research at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, said it was unclear why these hormones appeared to affect boys more than girls, nor was it yet clear why some boys appeared to be particularly sensitive to these hormones. It may be that the environment in which they grow up, or even their genetic make-up, gives them more of a predisposition to being affected by adrenarche, something that researchers hope to unravel as the study continues.

Nonetheless, the findings could have significant impact on how children in this age group – which has traditionally been thought of as a “latent” period in which nothing much happens – are raised and educated. Despite adrenarche having no obvious external signs, Professor Patton said, there is in fact a great deal going on for boys.

“We’ve never previously understood why it is that, in the period prior to puberty, you see higher rates of behavioural and emotional problems in boys,” he said.

Once puberty proper kicks in at around 12 years of age, the emotional effects of hormonal changes tend to be reversed, having a more significant emotional impact on girls than boys.

Lead researcher on the study, Lisa Mundy, said research interest and funding had long been concentrated in the early years of development – the preschool phase – and the teenage years, while these in-between years have been roundly neglected. But the role of these hormonal changes and their effect on boys’ emotional and social development means that it is almost a “second chance” to intervene before children head into adolescence.

“I think this is suggesting that this is possible a second critical phase of development, where we might be able to intervene to ‘reset’ kids who are on a riskier path,” Dr Mundy said.

Professor Patton said researchers would also be looking at how this early vulnerability to emotional disturbance may carry forward into risk-taking or substance-abuse behaviour in the teenage years.

“This is not only a period of huge biological development, it’s also an incredible period of psychological and emotional development,” he said. “It is during these years that a child really begins to develop that concept of himself or herself that they carry forward into adolescence and adulthood.”

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