The Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences on Puberty

We are all aware of the long term physical impact of trauma and abuse. I experienced it first hand when I got three slipped discs and had to have surgery just a few weeks after my father passed away. However did you know that experiencing abuse or trauma in childhood also impacts the onset of puberty?

There has been lots of research about the factors that determine when boys and girls start going through puberty. A complex mix of factors comes into play, including:

  • Heredity – we are born with a timetable in our genes. However it is not the sole determinant and the onset of puberty can be impacted by one or more of the following issues.
  • Weight and % of body fat to body weight. This is particularly important for girls. Research has shown that being overweight or obese can lead to them getting their first period earlier than other girls.
  • Birth weight – this impacts both genders. Babies who are born with a low birth weight are likely to start puberty earlier than other children. Low-birth-weight girls get their period circa 5 to 10 months earlier than other girls, while low-birth-weight boys are prone to having smaller testicular volume.
  • Country of birth and environment – children in developed countries and particularly in dense urban areas hit puberty earlier than those in less developed countries or who live in rural areas.
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences – children who experience trauma or stress early in life are likely to start puberty earlier than other children.

ACEs and Puberty

Children who experience Adverse Childhood Experiences have to grow up early. This is something that anyone who lived in a dysfunctional family or who experienced trauma as a child already knows.

However most people do not realize that these children do not only grow up faster mentally. Their body grows up faster too. In fact it has been found that children who have experienced difficult circumstances in childhood start puberty earlier than those who do not.

However most people do not realize that these children do not only grow up faster mentally. Their body grows up faster too. In fact it has been found that children who have experienced difficult circumstances in childhood start puberty earlier than those who do not.

Some examples of ACEs that impact puberty include:

  • Adoption.
  • Growing up in a family where the father is absent.
  • Low socioeconomic status and poverty.
  • Family conflict.
  • Parents who abuse substances such as alcohol or drugs.
  • Maternal harshness.
  • Any form of child maltreatment, neglect or abuse.

If a child experiences any of the above, then it is likely that he or she will start puberty earlier in life. They are also more prone to become sexually active earlier than other children and to take more sexual risks.

Physical Changes in Puberty

Puberty is not just about getting your period or larger genitals. These things do happen, but they occur towards the end of the pubertal years. Before girls and boys get to this stage, they go through several other physical and psychological changes.

The body and the skeleton start to grow and change. The child starts getting taller. Boys’ shoulders widen and they develop increased muscle mass. Girls’ hips widen and they accumulate more body fat. Genitals and breasts start to grow.

This stage of puberty affects girls and boys differently. Boys are pleased about the changes in their body, since broad shoulders and muscles are seen as attractive in most societies. Girls, on the other hand, have a harder time of it. The “ideal” female body type as depicted in the media is thin and lean, with narrow hips. This makes girls’ developing curves appear unattractive and undesirable.

The problem is obviously magnified when girls develop physically earlier than their peers. Their larger breasts and wider hips will be even more apparent if other girls their age have not started maturing. In cases where the early onset of puberty is linked to adverse childhood experiences, these body changes can make these girls feel even more isolated and unlovable.

Early maturation makes girls vulnerable. They are more likely to smoke, develop an eating disorder, use drugs and have older friends. Their developed bodies make them attractive to older boys and even men, often resulting in them dating much earlier than their peers, which then leads to them becoming sexually active at a young age.

Psychological Changes in Puberty

Puberty is a time of great hormonal change. Most people associate this with mood swings, but the impact has more far-reaching consequences. Boys get a surge of androgens (hormones like testosterone) which makes them more aggressive and violent. Girls, on the other hand, get a surge of estrogens (hormones such as estradiol) which makes them more prone to depression and emotionally vulnerable.

These hormonal reactions can increase risk taking behaviour, such as unprotected sex, alcohol or drug abuse. Parental monitoring and control are critical during this difficult stage. However, as we well know, children in dysfunctional or abusive families often do not have these moderating influences, so the dangers inherent in this stage are not mitigated. The result is that these youngsters might make decisions that endanger their health and their future.

It is important to note that there is a biological explanation for these risk-taking behaviours. The prefrontal cortex in the brain is in charge of reasoning, decision making and control. The amygdala, on the other hand, controls emotion. When children start puberty, the amygdala is much more developed than the prefrontal cortex, and of course the younger the child the bigger the gap. This explains why adolescents take more risks than adults – their prefrontal cortex is weaker than the amygdala at this stage in their life.

One of the main implications about the time gap between the development of the amygdala (which peaks between the ages of 14 and 16) and the development of the prefrontal cortex (which continues until the young adult is 25), is that children who are already disadvantaged because of trauma and abuse become even more vulnerable because their body develops way too early, when their reasoning and control is still that of a child.

How to help these children

Young people need support throughout their development and this is particularly important when they are going through puberty. If these children live in dysfunctional families then they are not likely to get the support they need at home, however this does not mean that all is lost.

Support can be found elsewhere. Participating in sports, attending church, drama clubs – these are all places where young people can find the guidance and structure that they need. Role models do not need to be family members. They can be teachers or coaches or even the local librarian. The whole community can come together to help these children.

Adolescents will always be attracted to high intensity activities. They will always be exposed to drugs, sex and alcohol. There is no way to stop this from happening. But what we CAN do as a community is ensure that there are resources for these children to get help and advice. Making available counsellors in schools and increasing the number of clubs and after-school activities have all been found to improve outcomes for young people, and particularly for those from difficult backgrounds.

As they say, it sometimes takes a village to raise a child.

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