Every child matures at his or her own pace. Some become intellectually mature very early on, but remain emotionally or physically stunted. Conversely, some children begin to exhibit the physical signs of maturation but continue to display intellectual or emotional immaturity. Pubertal timing—the age at which a child begins puberty—varies significantly. This aspect of development has been examined quite exhaustively with relation to later psychological and behavioral outcomes. One such aspect of behavior that has been studied with relation to pubertal timing is risky behavior, including drug and alcohol use. Most of the research in this area has looked primarily at how peer association, in combination with pubertal timing, affects alcohol and drug use in children. Karen Schelleman-Offermans of the Department of Health Promotion at Maastricht University in the Netherlands wanted to take this avenue of research in a new direction. In a recent study, Schelleman-Offermans chose to focus on environmental influences that could contribute to early-onset drinking.
Schelleman-Offermans followed 1,268 adolescents ranging in age from 13 to 14 for three years and evaluated their pubertal timing, the level of perceived peer alcohol consumption, and parental attitudes toward drinking. She found that the children were not only influenced by the behavior of their peers, but were quite heavily influenced by the way in which their parents restricted or allowed alcohol use. For instance, Schelleman-Offermans discovered that the teens who had early pubertal timing tended to have parents with more lenient rules about alcohol. These teens also perceived that their peers drank more than the teens who had later pubertal timing.
Taken together, these factors all contributed to significantly higher rates of alcohol consumption. In fact, teens who thought their peers drank even one unit more of alcohol had a nearly 30% higher risk of beginning to drink. When their parents even slightly tightened their rules pertaining to alcohol, the teens experienced a nearly 20% decrease in their risk of picking up a drink. These findings show that not only does the timing of puberty affect drinking, but so does a child’s perception of others’ drinking behaviors. Even though these perceptions were based on self-reports, as was the timing of puberty, they indicate a positive trend for drinking behaviors. However, perhaps the most startling discovery was the significance of parents’ rule setting with respect to alcohol. “It is important to motivate parents not to relax their alcohol-specific rule setting over time, particularly parents of early pubertal timers,” Schelleman-Offermans said.
Schelleman-Offermans, K., Knibbe, R. A., Kuntsche, E. (2012). Are the effects of early pubertal timing on the initiation of weekly alcohol use mediated by peers and/or parents? A longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029880
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