Sex abuse may trigger early puberty in girls

"Girls who reach puberty ahead of peers are substantially more likely to be targets of peer sexual harassment and receive a high number of unsolicited comments on their bodies," says Jane Mendle. (Credit: Becca Lau/Flickr)

Young girls who have been sexually abused reach puberty earlier than their peers, which can increase their risk of having emotional problems, new research shows.

“Early maturing girls are already more vulnerable to mood problems than other kids, but this risk seems to be magnified for girls with histories of sexual abuse,” says Jane Mendle, assistant professor of human development at Cornell University.

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“Girls who reach puberty ahead of peers are substantially more likely to be targets of peer sexual harassment and receive a high number of unsolicited comments on their bodies.”

About one in five girls in the United States have a history of sexual abuse—and these added challenges and pressures may become a tipping point for emotional difficulties such as depression and anxiety, Mendle says.

For the study published online in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, researchers studied 100 girls in foster care, all of whom had experienced maltreatment early in childhood.They looked at the type of maltreatment (physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect), emotional symptoms, and level of physical maturity reported at two points, two years apart.

The team found no direct effects of abuse on the girls’ emotional symptoms. Rather, they found that the number of sexual abuse instances, but not physical abuse or neglect instances, was linked to earlier pubertal timing.

Puberty experiences

It was these earlier developing girls that had more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal. The study showed that girls’ emotional problems were directly related to their experiences at puberty—not to what happened to them early in life.

“In addition to individual interventions (to help early maturing girls), another target might be our collective social response to early puberty,” Mendle says.

“Peers, caregivers, teachers and other adults have a tendency to react to children based on their observable—rather than chronological—age. Those reactions can be very powerful for how girls respond and interpret the challenges of growing up.”

Researchers from the University of Oregon and the University of California, Riverside contributed to the study that was supported in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Source: Cornell University