Reuters Health

Daughter's Tie To Dad Influences Age Of Puberty

October 1, 1999
Reuters Health News

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Young girls with close relationships with their fathers may enter puberty later than girls with distant or non-existent father-daughter relationships, suggest the results of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Good mother-daughter relationships were also found to delay puberty somewhat, but "in total, the quality of fathers' investment in the family emerged as the most important feature" of the puberty timing of daughters, according to the study authors, led by Bruce Ellis of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Ellis was a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, for the duration of the study.

Ellis and colleagues followed 173 girls and their families for an 8-year period, as the girls proceeded from preschool to the seventh grade. Fathers who were observed to be more affectionate with their daughters and who spent more time caring for their daughters during preschool years, tended to have daughters who entered puberty later than girls in less felicitous father-daughter relationships, the researchers found.

The exact mechanism behind the connection that appears to exist between puberty timing and family relationships remains to be understood, but the investigators speculate that stress may be a central mechanism, specifically, "the particular kind of stress associated with either low levels of positive family relationships, a lack of paternal investment, or both, that provokes earlier puberty."

Exposure to unrelated adult males may also play a role in provoking early puberty, since animal research indicates that female exposure to chemicals produced by unrelated adult males accelerates puberty in animals.

"It may be that girls from paternally deprived homes are more likely to become exposed to the pheromones of stepfathers and other unrelated adult males, which in turn accelerates pubertal development," the researchers write.

Ellis and colleagues called attention to an important gap in their study: they did not take genetics into account. For example, girls who mature earlier tend to become sexually active, marry, and have children earlier -- all of which "are associated with increased probability of divorce and lower quality paternal investment."

These early-maturing mothers tend to have early-maturing daughters for genetic reasons - not because of the quality of father-daughter relationships. But studies that did take genetics into account still found a significant link between timing of daughters' puberty and quality of family relationships, according to the researchers.

Ellis and colleagues conclude that their study results "highlight the importance of early paternal involvement in the development of 'healthy' reproductive functioning in daughters."

SOURCE: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1999;77.