Iowa State University Puberty Study Focuses on ‘Hairy’ Situation

AMES, Iowa  --  It's common knowledge that girls go through puberty earlier than boys, but a new study at Iowa State University shows boys go through puberty much earlier than we would expect. One study at Iowa State is looking what is happening inside the body during this pivotal transition in boys.

Current studies have also focused on what puberty means for girls, it’s a lot more noticeable when females go through puberty. So, this study focuses on boys and minorities and they are doing so by looking at hair.

“Parents of teenagers and children are going to be aware of how sometimes you wake up one day and your kid’s a half an inch taller and you’re like where did that come from? And then they’ll go long periods of time without any sort of growth or development and then all of a sudden, they’re changing again,” Human Development and Family Studies Associate Professor Elizabeth (Birdie) Shirtcliff said.

Hair captures all of those peaks and valleys of the hormone exposure over several months whereas measuring hormones with saliva, which is how previous studies were done, only shows that level of hormones the moment the saliva was taken. The reason adolescent boys are understudied is because their puberty is almost hidden. When people look at boy’s maturity now, they only recognize the physical aspect of it, they ignore the emotional, behavioral and mood changes that happen.

“The hormones help them understand the mood that’s happening under the skin and then we can talk to them and understand their mood from that sort of societal or contextual perspective and then see how those two things relate,” Shirtcliff said.

The study looks at the current model about what puberty means and they say generally it is something boys want because when boys go through puberty, they have a growth spurt and become more muscular, but it is a very narrow approach, because for some children those changes might not be good.

“So, for African-American boys for example, that change in growth and that change in muscular structure could also mean the change from people viewing them as a child to viewing them as a perpetrator or as a threat,” Shirtcliff said. “For LGBT youth, there again, those changes of being more physical, more muscular, and taller and broader, might not necessarily be a good thing if those are all physical changes that are taking you away from your ideal body type.”

They are trying to also study how puberty and hormones changes a person’s identity and racial socialization.

Physical change in boys happens over three years of puberty around the average age of 14. But this study shows maturing hormones can start in kids as young as 8 years old and do not stop until about 25 years old.

So as a message to parents, researchers say try to understand that emotional outbursts and struggles with behavior are normal parts of development during adolescence.

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