Sexual Abuse in Childhood Speeds Up Puberty

Sexual abuse in childhood is linked with an accelerated physical maturation in young girls, says a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Abuse, undoubtedly, has negative impacts on children. Previous studies have shown that the latter’s psychological development can be affected. But, do the ramifications extend to physical growth as well?

The new study, conducted by a team of researchers from Penn State, suggests that the stress of mistreatment can influence the timing of the physical maturation of teenagers. Study authors Jennie Noll and Idan Shalev found that girls who were sexually abused in childhood were more likely to mature physically, and reach puberty from 8 to 12 months earlier than girls who were not sexually abused.

But, shouldn’t a year’s difference be insignificant? Noll explains that though the short amount of time may appear to be inconsequential, the sped up maturation is associated with a number of unwanted outcomes, from behavioural and mental conditions to cancers affecting the reproductive system.

Hitting puberty earlier means that the physical changes have preceded the equivalent psychological ones. This is not in line with the ‘biological clock’ as physical development is timed together with psychological ones: this allows a child to develop mentally to be able to deal with more mature circumstances (like the physical changes occurring at puberty). Physical maturation happening before the adequate psychosocial one represents a mismatched timing called maladaptation, says Noll. This phenomenon, together with accelerated maturation, have been linked with sexual abuse in other studies; but the recent study brings forth more conclusive and detailed results.

“We found that young women with sexual abuse histories were far more likely to transition into higher puberty stages an entire year before their non-abused counterparts when it came to pubic hair growth, and a full 8 months earlier in regards to breast development,” says Noll.

What causes this accelerated physical maturation? According to Noll, the high levels of stress resulting from childhood sexual abuse can trigger the increased release of stress hormones that set puberty in motion ahead of its natural biological time. Furthermore, greater and longer exposure to hormones estrogens resulting in premature physical development has been linked with breast and ovarian cancers in other studies. Other negative consequences include higher rates of depression, teenage pregnancy, and drug abuse.

It is now hoped that the new findings will pave the way to greater preventive care and support to young girls experiencing the effects of premature sexual development.

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