Examining Pathways Between Pubertal Effects and Adjustment in Girls

Proposed pathways between pubertal effects and adjustment were examined in a study of 100 adolescent girls between the ages of 10 to 14 (Graber, Brooks-Gunn, & Warren, in press). Girls were from well-educated, middle to upper-middle class families in a major northeastern urban area. Measures of pubertal status included Tanner ratings for breast and pubic hair development. Pubertal timing comparisons were made for early maturing versus other girls; girls were classified as early using norms for Tanner Stages by age from the National Health Examination Survey (Duke, Jennings, Dornbusch, & Siegel-Gorelick, 1982). Blood samples were obtained from each girl in the mid-afternoon at the time of the laboratory visit. Samples were assayed for estradiol, testosterone, LH (luteinizing hormone), FSH (follicle stimulating hormone), and DHEAS (dehydroepiandosterone sulfate). Since prior studies with this sample have found effects for estradiol and DHEAS on depression and aggression, respectively, (Brooks-Gunn & Warren, 1989; Warren & Brooks-Gunn, 1989), this study only examined these hormones in order to follow up on underlying pathways for prior effects. Estradiol categories were created (0/1 code) to designate girls experiencing rapid change in estradiol levels versus those at stable levels (see Warren & Brooks-Gunn, 1989). DHEAS was examined as a continuous variable. Outcome measures include the depressive affect and aggression subscales of the Youth Self-Report (Achenbach, 1991). Three potential mediators of timing effects were examined - emotional arousal, attention difficulties, and negative life events. A measure of emotional arousal was created from 6 items on the YSR, predominantly from the Anxious-Obsessive subscale, based on a conceptual framework for emotional arousal. Similarly, an attention scale was created from 5 YSR items. Girls also completed a measure of life events covering the domains of family, school, and peer events, and sum score of negative life events across contexts was computed.

A series of regression models were run to examine the potential mediated pathways from either hormonal levels or pubertal timing to depressive affect or aggression, controlling for age. Despite the hypothesis that estradiol would lead to emotional arousal which would lead to depression, there was no support for this pathway in the analyses. However, as seen in Figure 16.6, the effect of pubertal timing on depressive affect was mediated by emotional arousal. The fact that emotional arousal did not explain the estradiol effect on depressive affect as expected warranted further exploration. Because links between adrenal response (e.g., cortisol response) and psychosocial stress have been extensively noted, DHEAS levels (another indicator of adrenal response) were examined in association with early maturation. The interaction between hormonal arousal (the upper third of the distribution of DHEAS considered high hormonal arousal) and timing (early versus other) was predictive of depressive affect and had a trend toward predicting the emotional arousal construct. Figure 16.7 illustrates that girls who were early maturers and who had high hormonal arousal as tapped by higher levels of DHEAS had the highest reports of depressive affect; a similar pattern is seen for emotional arousal. That is, this subgroup of early-maturing girls about age 12 with increased levels of DHEAS showed elevated emotional arousal and depressive affect.

The findings for aggression in this study are more difficult to explain. Pubertal timing was not associated with aggression in these analyses despite previous findings of an early maturation effect for conduct disorder in girls (e.g., Graber et al., 1997). Two reasons are suggested that may explain the lack of association. First, other studies examined delinquency or conduct disorder as outcomes, while this study analyzed mostly verbal aggression. Second, it has been found that early-maturing girls in mixed-gender schools had higher levels of behavior problems than other girls; however, early-maturing girls in single-sex schools did not have elevated behavior problems (Caspi, Lynam, Moffitt, & Silva, 1993). Since the sample of girls in the present study was drawn predominantly from private girls' schools, perhaps the absence of an effect of timing on aggression is consistent with the interaction of timing and school context found by Caspi and colleagues (1993).

Although aggression was not associated with early timing, it was associated with hormonal measures and some mediated pathways were identified. Mediated associations with aggression via negative life events were found for both estradiol category and DHEAS, as seen in Figure 16.8. Rapidly changing estradiol levels were associated with reporting more negative life events which predicated increased aggression. A similar mediation occurred for DHEAS, except that DHEAS was negatively associated with negative life events and aggression. The negative association between DHEAS and aggression has been found by others (e.g., Susman et al., 1987). Also, persistent low levels of cortisol, another adrenal hormone, have been linked with higher rates of aggression in boys (McBurnett, Lahey, Ra-thouz, & Loeber, 2000).

In sum, a goal of this study was to move beyond the demonstration of main effects and to better understand potential pathways that underlie effects. Results indicate that unique associations between different hormonal axes (HPG and HPA) and affect (depressive and aggressive) may be occurring. One limitation to the study is that it has a cross-sectional design, therefore, bi-directional associations were not tested. The sample included White, middle- and upper-middle-class families, so it is unclear whether effects can be generalized to more diverse samples. Two of the mediating constructs, emotional arousal and attention difficulties, were measured using scales created for this study (comprised of YSR items) based on conceptual frameworks. The validity of these scales has not been established. A future direction for the examination of pathways linking pubertal effects and adjustment would be to develop more comprehensive assessment of various aspects of arousal.

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