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Without dad, little girls grow up too fast

The Age (Melbourne)
9 March 2002

Sydney Morning Herald
9 March 2002

Without dad, little girls grow up too fast
by Bettina Arndt

'Strange males' can speed up the path to maturity. Bettina Arndt writes

The large numbers of children growing up with stepfathers may be
contributing to the worldwide trend towards girls reaching early puberty.

According to research from a landmark American study on divorce and
children, life in divorced or remarried families promotes early maturation
and increases the likelihood of early pregnancy.

The figures are striking - girls living in step-families are almost twice
as likely to reach early puberty as girls from non-divorced homes. While
only 18per cent of girls from intact homes started menstruating by 11 or
younger, this applied to 25 per cent of girls in divorce homes and 35per
cent in step-families.

On average, girls in stepfather families menstruated nine months earlier
and in divorced homes four months earlier than girls from intact homes.

The American study, involving nearly three decades of research covering
1400 families, has just been published in For Better or For Worse, a book
on the impact of divorce written by the principle researcher, psychologist
Mavis Hetherington, with her co-author, John Kelly.

The authors propose two explanations, based on the theories of
evolutionary psychologists, to account for the accelerated puberty in
divorced and blended families.

First, early puberty may be a response to life in a hostile environment -
namely the high rate of conflict and stress associated with divorce and

The alternate theory focuses on the fact that in many animal species, the
presence of a strange male is an environmental cue that induces sexual
readiness in young females. Hence early menarche may be triggered by the
presence of a "strange male" in the household.

There is considerable international evidence suggesting girls may be
maturing earlier, including Marcia Herman-Gidden's 1997 study of 17,000
American girls and a British study at Bristol University which tracked
14,000 children and found one in six girls with signs of puberty by eight
years old, compared to one in 100 a generation ago. There is, as yet, no
comprehensive Australian data on onset of puberty.

Explanations have included hereditary and diet factors, increases in
obesity and body weight, chemicals acting as endocrine disrupters and the
sexualisation of children by the media. Now the "strange male" theory must
be added to the list.

Dr Bruce Ellis, now at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, has
been involved in a series of studies exploring early puberty and family
structure, firstly in the US and now in New Zealand. His American work
examined the family circumstances of girls in kindergarten and tracked
them through to puberty.

His results reveal that the presence of the stepfather, or unrelated adult
male in the household, can lead to early puberty maturation in girls. "And
the earlier and longer the exposure, the stronger the effect," said Dr Ellis.

The critical time for that exposure seems to be the first five to seven
years of life, when the pathways to puberty are set down. Dr Ellis
speculates that an environmentally triggered process shunts the girl
towards a particular reproductive strategy. This process may be
influenced by male pheromones - chemical substances secreted by the
body - with the pheromones of unrelated males apparently accelerating
puberty development, whilst the scent of the biological father may delay

Animal studies demonstrate that pheromones can trigger early maturation.
"If you take a prepubescent female mouse and have her sleep in a cage
where an unrelated adult male has been, exposure to the litter saturated
with his pheromones results in the female reaching puberty faster," says
Dr Ellis, explaining that there has been similar results with cows and pigs.

Dr Ellis says that with children tending to receive higher quality
parental investment in intact families, it makes sense to prolong that
investment by maturing more slowly.

His research also indicates that puberty is delayed by the presence of the
biological father, particularly fathers who interact more with their
daughters when they are young. Here too there is parallel animal research.

"Female prairie dogs who grow up in the same den with their male sires
tend to go through later puberty than young females who are not kept in
the same den with their biological fathers. This may also be a pheromonal
effect," he says.

Research has consistently shown that girls from divorced families are
sexually active at a younger age, have a greater number of partners and
are at greater risk of early pregnancy.

Adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Greg is intrigued by the
Hetherington/Ellis research.

"It does gel with what I have observed in families. I think it has huge
implications," Dr Carr-Gregg says.

While there is no comprehensive Australian data, Dr Carr-Gregg suspects
Australia is seeing more early maturers, who often struggle because they
lack the emotional maturity to cope with the male attention they receive
as a result of their appearance. He suggests that in step-families "the
adult male may find it extremely difficult to deal with her precocious
sexuality and this adds to strife between the remarried couple".

Dr Ellis's research shows no impact on the timing of puberty from
stressful relationships in intact families, but finds that conflict
between parents in the step-family does contribute to early maturation.

Dr Ellis is seeking possible genetic explanations for the patterns
emerging in families. Research examining mother's timing of puberty and
age at first childbirth has suggested that both genetics and family
relationships are relevant, yet he says inherited characteristics from
fathers require investigation.

He acknowledges that the stepfather factor could now be a significant part
of the story. "With the strong increases in the numbers of children
growing up in families where they are exposed to pheromones of unrelated
adult males, it certainly could be having an effect," Dr Ellis says.

For David Blankenhorn, author of Fatherless America, the message from the
Ellis/Hetherington data is clear: "If we want young girls to delay sex and
childbearing, having a loving biological father on the premises is a good
idea, while having unrelated men on the premises is not."

Owen Pershouse is a Brisbane clinical psychologist and founder of MENDS,
an organisation supporting separated men.

Mr Pershouse believes this research should influence decisions about
contact between children and their biological fathers after divorce -
"particularly at critical developmental stages".

Dr Ellis says that given the uncertainty about the genetic component it is
too early to use these findings as the basis for social policy, but Mr
Pershouse warns that they will only add to the angst felt by many
separated males regarding daughters who are left behind with their
mothers, particularly in households that involve either a new boyfriend or

"Sadly the evidence is all too clear that many children are at risk of
abuse by these men," he says.

"We often find ourselves counselling divorced men who watch helplessly
knowing their children are being damaged in such family situations," he
says. "And here we have new evidence suggesting girls may face another

Copyright 2002. All rights reserved.
SMH Home:
Same, but slightly different, article by the same author:

Why some girls grow up faster
by Bettina Arndt -- The Age (Melbourne), 9 Mar 02



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