Toward a New Understanding of Early Menarche: The Role of Environmental Stress in Pubertal Timing

Article excerpt

The transition into adolescence is considered to be a significant developmental period as this life stage brings with it numerous biological, cognitive, and social changes (Conger, 1984). Typically, the onset of puberty has been viewed as a marker for entry into adolescence, and thus has received a great deal of attention in research. Particular focus has been upon pubertal timing, or the level of physical and psychological development of adolescents in comparison to same-age peers (Brooks-Gunn & Warren, 1985). In general, timing of menstruation has been the subject of most research in this area. Traditionally, early onset of puberty in girls has been regarded as stressful and related to deficits in their functioning. For example, early-maturing girls have been found to exhibit significantly more behavior problems than their peers who menstruate on time (Caspi & Moffitt, 1991). Similarly, these early maturers are more likely to engage in sexually promiscuous behavior during adolescence, have more difficulties relating socially, report more emotional problems such as depression and anxiety, and experience more intense conflict with parents than do their peers (Susman, Nottlemann, Inoff-Germain, Loriaux, & Chrousos, 1985). That is, it is generally accepted that early onset of puberty is stressful for girls (Kornfield, 1990).

A recent study examined the impact of several stressors upon adolescent functioning (Kornfield, 1990), including pubertal timing. Kornfield (1990) investigated the relative impact of divorce and early onset of puberty with a sample of 91 adolescents, 40 of whom were girls. For these girls, it was found that early onset of puberty was associated with lower social competence and greater disruption in parent-adolescent relationships. In contrast, early developers showed significantly lower levels of depression when compared to late developers. In light of this finding, the authors concluded that there is only minimal support to suggest that early puberty is stressful for girls. When considered in conjunction with divorce, however, the impact upon early developers was more evident. That is, early maturers from divorced homes exhibited more problems in functioning when compared to other groups in the sample. These data were interpreted as evidence for a cumulative stressor hypothesis--that girls experiencing multiple stressors (i.e., early onset of puberty and parental divorce) function poorly.

Again, congruent with the traditional view of pubertal timing, early onset was considered as a potential stressor in the Kornfield (1990) study. Implicit in this view is that pubertal timing is determined solely through biological processes. Recently, however, a controversial theory has been proposed which challenges this traditional view (Belsky, Steinberg, & Draper, 1991). Rather than conceptualizing early development as a stressor in and of itself, Belsky et al. suggest that early development may be environmentally triggered and may actually be an adaptive response to a stressful environment. Specifically, they propose that puberty marks the beginning of an adolescent's individuation from the family (Steinberg, 1987), a process that will begin earlier if staying in the family environment is perceived as risky or harmful. These researchers define risk as any potential for decreased availability of resources that may impair reproductive fitness. They particularly emphasize marital conflict, father absence, or poor parenting as possible risk factors. Belsky et al. (1991) further assert that this strategy is an unconscious process with its roots in evolution and natural selection theory; that is, in a high-risk environment, the most adaptive response for a female is to reproduce early and often, before she herself dies. This increases the probability of gene transfer into the next generation. In contrast, the most adaptive strategy for a female in a stable home environment is to defer sexual activity and reproduction, produce fewer offspring, and invest more time and resources in each child, thus increasing their probabilities of survival. …