Pubertal Status, Interaction with Significant Others, and Self-Esteem of Adolescent Girls

By Lackovic-Grgin, Katica; Dekovic, Maja et al. | Adolescence, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Pubertal Status, Interaction with Significant Others, and Self-Esteem of Adolescent Girls

Lackovic-Grgin, Katica, Dekovic, Maja, Opacic, Goran, Adolescence

Over the last decade an increased interest in the psychology of self-concept has led to numerous studies which examined self-esteem as an evaluative component of the self-concept. A review of recent studies which examined self-esteem during adolescence leads to three conclusions. First, the results of these studies are not systematized. Several variables found to be related to self-esteem differ with regard to their conceptual level: locus of control, physical appearance, relationship with parents and peers, and change of residence or school (Hirsch & Rapkin, 1987; Houston, 1984; Kulas, 1982; Marron & Kayson, 1984). Second, very few studies examined the relative contribution of these variables to the prediction of self-esteem (Buri, Kirchner, & Walsh, 1987; Wade, Thompson, Tashakkori, & Valente, 1989). Given that the correlates of self-esteem tend to be interrelated, examination of their independent effects seems to be the next necessary step. Third, the studies that examined stability of self-esteem during adolescence produced inconsistent results. This could be due to differences in design and in the measures used to assess self-esteem. Cross-sectional studies showed changes in self-esteem and decrease of self-respect during middle adolescence (Rosenberg, 1979). On the other hand, findings from the studies that used a longitudinal design indicated relative stability or even a slight increase in self-esteem during adolescence (Nottelman, 1987; Savin-Williams & Demo, 1984).

Mostly, changes of self-esteem during adolescence was seen as the consequences of physical maturation or radical changes in the way of living. The interactionist theory of self proposes, however, that the interactions with significant others play a crucial role in the development of self-esteem. This assumption has been tested and confirmed in our research (Lackovic-Grgin, 1987; 1988; Lackovic-Grgin & Dekovic, 1990). It seems therefore reasonable to expect that changes in self-esteem could be related to changes in adolescents' interactions with significant others.

From the psychological studies come evidence that the quality of interaction between children and their parents is related to the descriptive and evaluative aspects of self-concept (Burns, 1982; Papini & Sebby, 1987). During adolescence the quality of interactions with peers also becomes important (Lackovic-Grgin, 1988). Positive aspects of interactions such as intimacy, acceptance, and nurturance are related to higher self-esteem.

The biosocial studies pointed out that physical maturation affects the quality of interactions between adolescents and significant others, though these changes appear to be more subtle than is suggested by the traditional conception of adolescence. Contrary to the traditional view of adolescence as a period of stress and turmoil, it appears that the increase in conflicts, larger distance, and less intimacy within the parent-adolescent relationship characterized only the period at the apex of pubertal maturation. These changes are especially evident in girls (Steinberg, 1988; Steinberg & Hill, 1978).

With regard to the relationship between physical maturation and self-esteem, no clear findings have been reported. Ulman (cited in McGrory, 1990) found that girls who have been menstruating for two years were more depressed than those who have not started to menstruate. Early pubertal development has also been associated with lower self-esteem (Wade et al., 1989). On the other hand, Simmons, Blyth, and McKinney (1983) found no effects of onset and presence of menses on girls' global self-image in early adolescence. Similarly, Brack, Donald, & Ingersoll (1988) found no variation in self-esteem across Tanner's five stages of physical development.

Based on these findings it seems unlikely that physical maturation would have a direct effect on self-esteem of adolescent girls. It is more logical to assume that the effects are indirect, mediated by the changes in the adolescents' interactions with significant others. The purpose of this study was to test these hypotheses.

From the previous cross-sectional studies that examined the effects of physical maturation on different aspects of adolescent behavior and development, it is difficult to conclude whether the effects found are due to the pubertal status, chronological age, or their interaction. Mostly, the design used involved selection of a wide age-range sample, after which the pubertal status was assessed and its effects on several dependent variables examined. In order to avoid such confounding between age and pubertal maturation, the sample of this study consisted of girls of the same chronological age.

Another problem involves the operationalization of pubertal maturation. The most frequently used criterion for girls is the occurrence of the first menstrual period. This criterion, aside from being reliable and valid, also makes it possible to assess the amount of time of physical maturation, a dimension that is especially important because menarche is more than just a biological change. It is an important life event which requires adjustment by the girl herself and her environment. Thus the comparison of girls on this dimension seems more appropriate than comparison based on timing of menarche relative to the population. Relatively early or late maturation probably has some effect on the relationship with peers, but the degree of physical maturation seems to be more important to family members. For these reasons the pubertal status in this study was operationalized in terms of the number of months from the occurrence of the first menstrual period to the time of investigation.



The sample for the study consisted of 178 girls from the eighth grade of primary school in Zadar, Croatia (mean age, 13 years and 9 months).


The first part of the questionnaire included demographic variables, date of the first menstrual period, and a question regarding academic achievement (whether school performance was lower, the same, or higher as compared with the previous school year).

Self-esteem. Subjects completed the shortened version of the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory (SEI) (Coopersmith, 1967), consisting of 25 items which have been checked in a previous study for psychometric properties (Bezinovic & Lackovic-Grgin, 1990). The subjects were asked to indicate for each item whether it is "like me" or "not like me." A measure of self-esteem was derived by summing the number of affirmative answers. The internal consistency, as determined by Chronbach's alpha, was .88.

Interactions with significant others. The questionnaire which was developed in our previous research (Lackovic-Grgin & Opacic 1989; Opacic & Kos, 1987) consisted of three sets of items (mother, father, and friend) measuring the following dimensions of interaction: intimacy, control, and punitiveness (interaction with parents), and intimacy and control (interaction with friends). Each of these one-dimensional Likert-format scales consisted of eight items. An example of the items measuring intimacy is: "I can talk to my mother (father) about personal things"; an example of the items measuring control: "My mother (father) tells me what I should or should not do"; an example of the punitiveness items: "I sometimes get undeserved physical punishment from my mother (father)." Chronbach's alphas for intimacy, control, and punitiveness in relationship with mother were .80, .64, and .75, respectively. In the same order, the alphas for fathers were .91, .68, and .75. Finally, the alphas for intimacy and control in the relationship with friend were .60 and .58, respectively.

For each subject eight scale scores (three for each parent and two for friend) were computed as unweighted averages of the items included in the respective scales.


In order to determine if there is a relationship between pubertal status (length of physical maturation) and self-esteem, the sample was divided into four groups. The first consisted of girls who had not yet menstruated (n = 27), the second were girls whose first menstrual period had occurred within the past six months (n = 44), the third were girls whose time of physical maturation was between 7 and 12 months (n = 78), and the fourth group consisted of girls who have been menstruating 13 or more months (n = 29). Though the sample was homogeneous with regard to age, in order to check for possible age effects, two groups were formed: girls above the mean age (167 months) and those below the mean age.

The 2 (age) x 4 (length of physical maturation) analysis of variance revealed significant effect of physical maturation on self-esteem, F(3, 175) = 10.16, p [is less than] .05. Neither significant effects of age nor significant interactions were found. As shown in Table 1 the girls whose first menstrual period occurred more than a year ago had the lowest self-esteem.

The next question concerned the relationship between girls' self-esteem and pubertal status, and interaction variables with significant others (their parents and friends). Highly significant correlations TABULAR DATA OMITTED were found between self-esteem and interaction with parents, but not with interaction with friends. All correlations were in the predicted direction: higher self-esteem was associated with more intimacy and a lower level of control and punitiveness in the relationship with both mothers and fathers. Table 2 also shows the correlations between these variables and the time of physical maturation. The time of physical maturation appears to be associated with interactional variables; an especially high correlation was found between maturation and experienced control by mothers.

Table 2

Means and Standard Deviations of Selected Variables and Their Correlations
with Self-esteem and Pubertal Maturation

Variable                       M         SD        SE           PM

Age                         167.79      5.57      .14          .15
School performance            1.81       .83     -.07          .03
Intimacy - mother            23.62      6.83     -.41(**)     -.29(*)
Punitiveness - mother        10.24      5.91      .50(**)      .37(**)
Control - mother              8.79      4.48      .46(**)      .72(**)
Intimacy - father            16.54      7.62     -.32(*)      -.24
Punitiveness - father         9.08      5.89      .48(**)      .17
Control - father              8.53      4.79      .37(**)      .38(**)
Intimacy - friend            10.01      2.86     -.12          .14
Control - friend              5.44      3.60      .02          .14
Self-esteem                   9.03      5.33        -
Pubertal maturation           7.61      5.00      .31(*)

Note. SE = self-esteem; PM = length of pubertal maturation in months.

* p [is less than] .05. ** p [is less than] .01.

These findings suggest that the relationship between physical maturation and self-esteem could be mediated by interactional variables. In order to test this hypothesis, a stepwise regression analysis was conducted with self-esteem as the criterion variable. In the first step, all independent variables were entered. In each of the following steps the predictor variables were eliminated from the regression until the deletion of a variable in the next step yielded a significant decrement in the explained variance. Only the variables that remained in the equation were considered as predictor variables.

In the first step, the girls' age, school performance, pubertal maturation, and eight interaction variables explained 43% of variance in their self-esteem. When viewed with other predictor variables, the effect of pubertal maturation on self-esteem was not significant ([Beta] = -.02; N.S.).

The elimination of variables: age, school performance, pubertal maturation, intimacy with father, father's control, and intimacy and control in relationships with friend, did not significantly decrease the accuracy of the prediction. The variables that remained as significant predictors in the last (eighth) regressed step were: intimacy, control, and punitiveness in relationship with the mother and punitiveness of the father. These variables explained 41% of the variance in self-esteem. These results suggest that the effects of pubertal maturation or self-esteem is indirect, mediated by the quality of the relationship with significant others (especially the mother).


The findings that pubertal maturation affects adolescent girls' self-esteem and that girls who have just started to menstruate have the highest self-esteem point out the importance of menarche. Rather than a gradual biological change which characterizes physical development during adolescence, menarche represents a dramatic singular event. It signals not only reproductive capability, but a status change in roles from girl to young woman. This could be emphasized by the social environment (peers and parents) when they tend to view the menarche as a sign of general, rather than only biological maturation.

Table 3

Summary of Regression Analyses with Self-esteem as Criterion

Step/predictor                Beta       [R.sup.2]        F

First step

Age                           .11
School performance            .00
Intimacy - mother            -.23
Punitiveness - mother         .14
Control - mother              .22
Intimacy- father             -.07
Punitiveness - father         .34
Control - father             -.09
Intimacy - friend            -.04
Control- friend              -.03
Pubertal maturation          -.02
Total set                 $                 .43         11.56(*)

Last step (backward)

Intimacy - mother            -.25
Punitiveness - mother         .18
Control - mother              .17
Punitiveness - father         .29
Total set                                   .41         29.85(*)

* p [is less than] .001.

Biological changes and the responses of others affect adolescent girls' perception of self; physical aspects of self and body image become especially important for the girls' self-esteem in this period (Bezinovic & Lackovic-Grgin, 1990; McGrory, 1990). Satisfaction with the fact that the expected event has occurred and that one's body is functioning properly, as well as the symbolic change in status to a grown-up, may explain this increase in self-esteem.

The girls who had been menstruating longest (more than a year) had the lowest self-esteem. It is possible that after this period of experience with menstruation, they adjust to physical changes and incorporate menstruation into their perception of self.

Physical changes during adolescence have an impact not only on girls' self-esteem but on their interpersonal relationships (Steinberg, 1988; Steinberg & Hill, 1978). Previous studies have shown an increase in conflict at home, possibly because parents tend to become more restrictive and controlling (Hill, Holembeck, Marlow, Green, & Lynch, 1985; Papini & Sebby, 1987). The present results are consistent with these findings. Parental control seems to increase as girls mature physically. As a function of time of physical maturation, there is less intimacy and more punitiveness in the relationship with mothers.

Though pubertal maturation was associated with both self-esteem and interaction variables, the results of regression analysis showed that pubertal maturation has only an indirect effect on self-esteem. The best predictors of self-esteem of adolescent girls appear to be the quality of their relationship with mother and punitiveness of their fathers. Similar results were found by Buri, Kirchner, and Walsh (1987) and by Coopersmith (1967); higher self-esteem is positively related to intimacy and nurturance in relationship with parents, and negatively related to parental punitiveness and control. This supports the view that the quality of interactions of the same-sex parent may be especially important for the development of self-esteem during early and middle adolescence (Wade et al., 1989). Nonsignificant relationships between self-esteem and the quality of interaction with friends for this age group is not surprizing. It is not until late adolescence that increased intimacy in relationships with peers leads to a stronger impact of friends on adolescents' self-esteem (Lackovic-Grgin & Dekovic, 1990).

Finally, this study examined only one of a number of possible mediators in the relationship between puberal maturation and self-esteem of adolescent girls: the quality of their interactions with significant others. Future research should focus, in addition to interaction variables, on adolescents' personal variables such as formal thinking, attitudes toward their body and its development, and coping strategies.


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