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Aggression Tied to Timing of Puberty

Aggression Tied to Timing of PubertyNew research suggests puberty that arrives earlier or later in adolescent boys relative to their peers is associated with antisocial behavior.

Researchers discovered the atypical timing can trigger chemicals that are related to antisocial behavior, a finding that has implications for parents with aggressive boys.

“Aggressive behavior can begin very early, even in preschool, and might be related to poor impulse control, difficulties in the family or just overall general problem behavior,” said Elizabeth J. Susman, professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State University.

“We wanted to find out if earlier or later timing of puberty in adolescents has any biological factors related to it.”

Susman and her colleagues looked at how the timing of puberty affects cortisol, a stress hormone, and salivary alpha amylase, an enzyme in saliva used as indicator of stress.

Their findings appear in the May issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology.

The researchers found that lower levels of the alpha amylase in boys who experienced earlier maturity and higher levels of cortisol in boys who experienced later maturity are related to antisocial behavior. They found no similar correlation in girls.

“This is the first study to show that the timing of puberty moderates biological risks of antisocial behavior,” said Susman.

“The implication is that parents should be especially sensitive to picking up signs of earlier or later puberty in their children. Parents and health care providers should be aware of how puberty can be stressful — behaviorally and biologically — on the kids.”

Why the findings are statistically significant for boys and not girls remains unclear.

“At puberty, boys produce a lot of testosterone and testosterone is a stress hormone as well,” added Susman.

“It may be that compared to girls, boys just have more biological hormone changes that may lead to antisocial behavior.”

The researchers used a child behavior checklist to test 135 boys and girls ages 8 to 13 for signs of antisocial behavior — aggression, rulebreaking, social and attention problems, defiance, and conduct disorder.

Researchers also collected saliva samples before and after a stressful laboratory test, while pediatric nurses determined the stage of puberty for each child.

“We had the children tell a story and do a mental arithmetic test,” said Susman.

“To evoke a stress response, the children were told that judges would evaluate the test results with those of other children.”

Statistical analyses of the children’s cortisol and salivary enzyme levels, as well as the timing of puberty and symptoms of antisocial behavior, suggest that overall, antisocial boys are characterized by a later onset of puberty and higher levels of cortisol.

However, boys who reached puberty earlier and had lower levels of the salivary enzyme specifically showed greater problems related to rulebreaking and conduct disorder. These boys were also more aggressive than those in the group that experienced puberty later.

“We have shown that the relationship between cortisol, salivary amylase, and antisocial behavior is linked to the timing of puberty,” said Susman.

“This is the first study to show how the timing of puberty moderates biological vulnerabilities in children.”

Source: Penn State University

Aggression Tied to Timing of Puberty

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Aggression Tied to Timing of Puberty. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 4 May 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.