Tag Archives: child development

By Ted Boscia
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, August 28, 2013

Wendy Wei leads a child through spatial cognition tests - Mark Vorreuter

Human development major Wendy Wei ’15 spent most of her summer at Ithaca-area day care centers leading 4- and 5-year-olds through brain teasers and puzzles or building towers with blocks and Legos. Far from child’s play, her work sought to understand how preschoolers develop spatial cognition and whether those abilities could be nurtured through interactive play.

Wei is one of 15 undergraduates who received $4,000 stipends from the College of Human Ecology to work in faculty labs full time this summer as part of the college’s long-running research immersion program. Made possible by a mix of alumni endowments and college and federal funds, it allows students to conduct research uninterrupted by classes, exams, jobs or extracurricular activities.

“We want students to deeply engage in research, not just doing a few hours as an assistant in the lab but helping the team to define the research question, methods and data collection and interpretation,” said Carole Bisogni ’70, M.S. ’72, Ph.D. ’76, associate dean for academic affairs. “For some students, it changes their entire outlook.”

Wei entered Cornell on a path to become a physician. But, partly due to her research in associate professor Marianella Casasola’s Cornell Infant Studies Laboratory, she’s now focused on a career in research and education.

This summer, Wei led an experiment to test how children’s knowledge of spatial language (terms like “up,” “down,” “in” and “on”) influences their spatial cognition (how well they recognize two-dimensional shapes and patterns, and mentally map their physical surroundings).

“Prior work has shown a link between spatial cognition and future performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields,” Wei said. “Hopefully the study will help in coming up with better methods for teaching kids spatial concepts.”

While Wei focused on cognitive growth, Judith Mildner ’14, human development, was examining declines in brain function. Mildner helped conduct a study in the Cornell MRI Facility searching for biomarkers in the brain that might predict the onset of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases years ahead of what is now possible.

Mildner said she enjoyed working on a team of research assistants and the close interaction with faculty that’s rarely possible during the busy academic year.

“I want to work in neuropsychology research, probably on aging and dementia, and I have learned a lot about what it takes to run an functional MRI study [a type of imaging that allows neuroscientists to see different forms of brain activity],” she said. “I want a job doing research, and this summer I’ve been able to do it all day, every day.”

Ariana Levitt working on fiber electrospinning in the lab of Margaret Frey, associate professor of fiber science and apparel design, in the Human Ecology Building - Jason Koski, University Photography

Students from each of Human Ecology’s five academic departments – Design and Environmental Analysis, Fiber Science & Apparel Design, Human Development, Policy Analysis and Management, and Nutritional Sciences – received summer stipends.

Some, like Nivetha Subramanian ’15 and Ariana Levitt ’15, donned white coats at lab benches: Subramanian compared genetic properties of breast milk from mothers of full-term and premature infants, and Levitt looked for the right mix of polymers needed to spin nanofibers with high conductivity and low water solubility. Others contributed to social science projects: Williams “Carlos” Higgins ’14 surveyed occupants of Caldwell Hall to gather data for a project to identify structures best suited for energy-saving retrofits, and Max Kellogg ’15 built a statistical model to track how TV ads influence people’s daily consumption of sweetened and unsweetened drinks.

Higgins said the summer program builds on classes by allowing him to “dive in much deeper.”

“It’s exciting when I find something I don’t expect to,” he said. “Usually in class everything is laid out in the syllabus, and you know what’s coming. With research, I’ve thought about the problem for hundreds of hours and still get results totally different from what I expected.”

Ted Boscia is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

Footnote

Overall, six Human Development majors were among the 15 undergraduates who received research stipends from the College of Human Ecology this summer:

  • Rebecca Derven ’15 worked with Valerie Reyna, professor of human development, on "Interventions for Risk Reduction in Obesity Prevention;"
  • Judith Mildner ’14, mentioned above, worked with Nathan Spreng, assistant professor of human development, on "Age-related changes in enhancement and modulation of the default network;"
  • Emily Bastarach ’14 worked with Anthony Ong, associate professor of human development, on "Resilience to parental loss: A prospective study of early parental support and positive emotions;"
  • Wendy Wei, ’15 worked with Marianella Casasola, associate professor of human development, on the project mentioned above called "Putting the pieces together;"
  • Jasmin Perez ’14 worked with Gary Evans, professor of human development, on "The effect of socioeconomc status on infant Distractibility;" and
  • Jenna Behrendt ’14 worked with Barbara Lust, professor of human development, on "Characterizing language deficits in mildly cognitive impaired elderly compared to a healthy aging and a young population."

Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, August 19, 2013

Tamar Kushnir works with a child as part of a partnership between ECC and the Ithaca Sciencenter - Lindsay France, University Photography

For parents, getting kids to share their toys can be a constant battle, and compelling them to hand over their favorite doll or truck rarely works for long. New Cornell research suggests that allowing children to freely choose to give valuable possessions to another leads them to share more in the future.

The findings, by Nadia Chernyak, a graduate student in the field of human development, and Tamar Kushnir, the Evalyn Edwards Milman Assistant Professor of Child Development in the College of Human Ecology, are published in a paper, “Giving Preschoolers Choice Increases Sharing Behavior,” in the journal Psychological Science.

Their studies suggest that sharing when given a difficult choice leads children to see themselves in a new, more beneficent light – one that makes them more likely to act in a sharing manner in the future.

“Making difficult choices allows children to infer something important about themselves: In making choices that aren't necessarily easy, children might be able to infer their own prosociality,” Chernyak said.

To test this, the researchers introduced 3-5 year-olds to Doggie, a puppet, who was feeling sad. Some of the children were given a difficult choice: Share a precious sticker with Doggie, or keep it for themselves. Other children were given an easy choice between sharing and discarding the sticker, while children in a third group were required by the researcher to share.

Later on, all the children were introduced to Ellie, another sad puppet. They were given the option of how many stickers to share (up to three) to cheer her up. The kids who earlier made the difficult choice to help Doggie shared more stickers with Ellie. The children who were initially confronted with an easy choice or who were required to give their sticker to Doggie, on the other hand, shared fewer stickers with Ellie.

“You might imagine that making difficult, costly choices is taxing for young children or even that once children share, they don’t feel the need to do so again,” Chernyak said. “But this wasn’t the case: Once children made a difficult decision to give up something for someone else, they were more generous, not less, later on.”

Another experiment supported these findings, illustrating that children are more generous after choosing to share valuable toy frogs compared to worthless shreds of paper. Those who initially shared the frogs with Doggie shared more stickers with Ellie later on. Those who readily shared the paper, on the other hand, shared fewer stickers with Ellie. Therefore, children did not benefit from the mere act of sharing, but rather from willingly sacrificing something of value.

“Children are frequently taught to share, be polite and be kind to others. In order to bring us closer to figuring out how to best teach children these skills, it is important to know which factors may aid in young children’s sharing behavior,” Chernyak said. “Allowing children to make difficult choices may influence their sharing behavior by teaching them greater lessons about their abilities, preferences and intentions toward others.”

The research was supported by a Cognitive Science Fellowship from Cornell.

Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, July 3, 2013

Evans

Evans

Children from low-income families tend to do worse at school than their financially better-off peers. Poor planning skills, which can emerge as early as kindergarten and continue through high school, is one reason for the income-achievement gap, reports a new Cornell study of a large ethnically and socioeconomically diverse group of children from across the United States.

The study, "The role of planning skills in the income-achievement gap," is published in the July/August issue of the journal Child Development (84:4).

“Low-income children appear to have more difficulty accomplishing planning tasks efficiently, and this, in turn, partially explains the income-achievement gap,” says Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology at Cornell, senior author of the study with Stephen Crook ’10, M.A. ’11. “Efforts to enhance the academic performance of low-income children need to consider multiple aspects of their development, including the ability to plan in a goal-oriented manner.”

The study, which was based on Crook’s master’s thesis, used data from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, which looked at almost 1,500 children from 10 geographic sites across the United States.

Planning skills were assessed when the children were in third grade, through the widely used Tower of Hanoi game. The game starts with a stack of rings placed on a rod so that the biggest ring is at the bottom, and the smallest is on the top. Using two other rods and moving only one ring at a time without ever placing a wider ring on a smaller ring, the children have to recreate the original stack on one of the two spare rods.

The study found that the children’s performance in fifth grade could be explained, in part, by how they did on the third-grade planning task, even when taking IQ into consideration. Using income as well as math and reading scores, the study also found that the lower the household income during infancy, the worse the children’s performance on reading and math in fifth grade – replicating the well-known gap between income and achievement.

The researchers suggest several reasons why poverty may interfere with the development of good planning skills. Individuals living in low-income homes experience greater chaos in their daily lives, including more moves, school changes, family turmoil, and crowded and noisy environments, and fewer structured routines and rituals. In addition, low-income parents may be less successful at planning because of their own stress levels.

Researchers believe the group of skills called executive function, which includes planning skills, can be strengthened through interventions. Such interventions are being developed and tested for children as young as the preschool years.

The study was funded by the W.T. Grant Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, June 25, 2013

The new book "Human Bonding: The Science of Affectional Ties" (Guilford Press) provides a scientific roadmap to love, relationships and what makes them strong – from our first attachments in infancy through old age.

“It is amply documented that people with close social ties are happier, healthier and even live longer than those without such ties; indeed, our very survival as a species depends on the formation and maintenance of strong social bonds,” said Cindy Hazan, co-editor of the book, associate professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and a founder in the field of relationship science.

“A central aim of this book is to provide an integrative, science-based overview of human bonding across the lifespan,” she said.

The book grew out Cornell’s popular course on human bonding, which Hazan designed and has taught for 25 years to capacity crowds, Hazan explained. Many students who took the course have gone on to become relationship scientists in their own right, she said, including seven of the contributors to the current volume.

"Human Bonding" addresses early bonding experiences from infancy through adolescence; mate selection, love and sexual desire, hooking up and online dating; keys to relationship success’ predictors and consequences of relationship dissolution; and the role of social connectedness in mental and physical health.

The book includes a chapter by Hazan and Gul Gunaydin, Ph.D. ’13, and Emre Selcuk, Ph.D. ’13, which integrates the social science evidence on the process of human mate selection. In it, the authors explain the many factors that influence how we narrow a large pool of potential mates down to one. For years, researchers focused on the characteristics that people say they seek in a mate, but more recent work has revealed that what we say we want in a partner differs significantly from who we actually end up partnering with. Proximity, the authors say, turns out to be a surprisingly influential factor.

The book, designed for students and relationship scholars, and those interested in understanding our closest – and often most perplexing – relationships, was co-edited by Mary Campa, Ph.D. ’07, assistant professor of psychology at Skidmore College.

Karene Booker is extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Ted Boscia
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle May 20, 2013

Katie Sullivan

Katie Sullivan ’11, who conducted interviews with Nepalese while studying abroad, with a Nepali child.
- Katie Sullivan/Provided

Preschoolers universally recognize that one’s choices are not always free – that our decisions may be constrained by social obligations to be nice to others or follow rules set by parents or elders, even when wanting to do otherwise.

As they age, however, American kids are more prone to acknowledge one’s freedom to act against such obligations compared to Nepalese children, who are less willing to say that people can and will violate social codes, finds a cross-cultural study by Cornell developmental psychologists titled “A Comparison of Nepalese and American Children’s Concepts of Free Will,” published May 20 in the journal Cognitive Science.

The findings, researchers said, suggest that culture is a significant influence on children’s concepts of choice regarding social norms.

“We know that adult views on whether social obligations constrain personal desires differ by culture, so this study helps us to determine when those variations emerge,” said first author Nadia Chernyak, a graduate student in the field of human development. “We can understand which ideas are universal and how culture influences individual ways of thinking.”

Led by Chernyak and Tamar Kushnir, the Evalyn Edwards Milman Assistant Professor in the College of Human Ecology, the research team interviewed children in the two countries to understand their beliefs on free choice and the physical, mental and social factors that limit choice.

Co-author Katie Sullivan ’11, a human development major with a minor in global health, aided the project while studying abroad in 2009 through the Cornell Nepal Study Program – a joint venture with Nepal’s Tribhuvan University. Sullivan took courses, learned the language and immersed herself in the culture before working with Chernyak and Kushnir to adapt their survey into a culturally appropriate version for Nepalese children. Partnering with Rabindra Parajuli, a Nepali research assistant, she worked with village and school leaders to arrange and conduct interviews with children.

Researchers read a series of nine vignettes to 45 Nepalese and 31 American children – hailing from urban and rural areas and ranging in age from 4 to 11 – about characters who wanted to defy various physical, mental and social constraints, asking kids whether the characters are free to follow their wishes and to predict if they will do so.

Nearly all children, across ages and cultures, said the characters could freely choose when no constraints were evident – opting for juice or milk at a meal or whether to draw with a pen or pencil, for example. The children also universally agreed that one is not free to choose to go beyond one’s physical and mental abilities – opting to float in the air or to surpass the limits of one’s knowledge and skill.

Developmental and cultural differences emerged, however, in children’s evaluation of choice in the face of social constraints. Younger children in both cultures said that various social and moral obligations limit both choice and action – that one cannot be mean to others, act selfishly or break rules and social conventions, for instance. But by age 10, American children tended to view these obligations as choices – free to be followed or disregarded based on personal desires. Nepalese children continued to believe that such constraints override individual preference.

“As children become more exposed to their own culture and adult behaviors, they are more likely to adopt their culture’s ways of thinking,” Chernyak said. Chernyak said also that future research could try to define what contributes to these differing views.

Qi Wang, professor of human development, is a co-author on the study, which was funded in part by the James S. McDonnell Foundation Causal Learning Collaborative Initiative. The work was also supported by a Cornell Cognitive Science Dissertation Fellowship awarded to Chernyak.

Ted Boscia is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle March 21, 2013

Kushnir

Young children are not like sponges just soaking up information. They can actively evaluate what people know and go to the "experts" for information they want, reports a Cornell study published in a special issue of Developmental Psychology (Vol. 49:3).

Children, the researchers say, are "natural scientists" who gather and assess evidence from the world around them.

"As adults we rely on experts to help us fill in the gaps in our knowledge -- that is, we appreciate that there is a 'division of cognitive labor' in which different people know different things," said Tamar Kushnir, the Evalyn Edwards Milman Assistant Professor of Child Development and director of the College of Human Ecology's Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory. "Our research suggests that this appreciation for people's differing areas of expertise is based in our early, intuitive 'theory of mind' abilities -- a set of beliefs that begins to form while children are still very young."

To shed light on how children's understanding of cause and effect is influenced by information from other people, 3- and 4-year-old children were shown a short puppet show. One puppet (the "labeler") tried but failed to fix two broken toys, but demonstrated that he knew the names of the tools he used. The other (the "fixer") was able to fix the toys, but didn't know the names of the tools he used. In a series of follow-up questions, children were prompted to choose a puppet to ask for either the names of unfamiliar objects, the functions of unfamiliar tools or for help to fix a few more broken toys.

The researchers found that most of the preschoolers asked the fixer for help with fixing new broken toys. Moreover, they directed their requests selectively and appropriately. They did not ask the fixer to learn object names (for that they asked the labeler) or to learn new tool functions (for that they asked both puppets equally).

In a second experiment, children watched a short video of two adults -- one who fixed toys and one who failed to fix toys. Later, each adult provided explanations for a set of mechanical failures (for example, saying that the toy was broken "because the motor had stopped moving"). Each adult also made claims to know the names of some unfamiliar objects. The children overwhelmingly endorsed the fixer's explanations for why the toy didn't work. Once again, their endorsements were selective; they did not prefer to learn new words from the fixer.

The results suggest that preschoolers can infer what a person might know from watching what they do and use this to choose whom to learn from, the authors said. Across both studies, the children selectively judged the fixers to be reliable sources of information about cause and effect, but not about language (i.e., words) or other common conventions (i.e., tool functions). In other words, the children correctly evaluated the fixer's causal expertise.

"Good educators often struggle to teach a healthy dose of skepticism about unreliable sources, particularly when so much information is readily available electronically," said Kushnir. "Our study and others like it suggest that young children are not entirely credulous. Perhaps there are ways to take advantage of these intuitions as part of early childhood education."

Kushnir co-authored the paper, "'Who can help me fix this toy?' The Distinction Between Causal Knowledge and Word Knowledge Guides Preschoolers' Selective Requests for Information," with graduate student Christopher Vredenburgh and Lauren A. Schneider '11. The study is part of a larger National Science Foundation-funded study on causal learning and was also supported in part by the Leopold Schepp Foundation and the Institute for the Social Sciences at Cornell.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Sarah Cutler
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, November 7, 2012

Tommy Rucker '13 and graduate student Nadia Chernyak, both research team members of the Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory, work with Ruby Yantorno-France, 3, at the Sciencenter in Ithaca Nov. 1.
- Linsay France, University Photography

"Doggy feels sad today," Nadia Chernyak, a Cornell graduate student, recently said as she showed a dog puppet to several children at the Sciencenter, a hands-on science museum in Ithaca. Chernyak '08, M.A. '09, was conducting an experiment with the children and had given them colorful stickers, which they presumably wanted to keep.

The kids -- between 2 and 4 years old -- could cheer up the puppet only by giving him a sticker. Some faced what Chernyak called an "easy choice": either share their sticker with the puppet or hand it to Chernyak, who would throw it away. Others had a tougher decision: keep the sticker for themselves or share it with the puppet. After making their decisions, the children received three more stickers and the choice to share some with a different toy, "Ellie," a stuffed elephant.

Chernyak found that most children shared their stickers with Doggy, and the ones who made difficult choices in the first stage were more willing to share a second time with Ellie. Her findings, part of her dissertation on children's moral development, suggest that kids may learn empathy in part by making difficult autonomous choices.

Chernyak's investigation is contributing to a larger study overseen by Tamar Kushnir, the Evalyn Edwards Milman Assistant Professor of Child Development and director of the College of Human Ecology's Early Childhood Cognition (ECC) Laboratory, which is investigating how young children develop a concept of choice and its influence on their behaviors and perceptions.

Through a novel partnership begun last February, undergraduate and graduate students in Kushnir's lab have conducted experiments with more than 500 children at the Sciencenter. The collaboration began after Kushnir, Michelle Kortenaar, Sciencenter director of education, and Charles Trautmann, the center's executive director and Cornell adjunct associate professor of engineering, explored a mutual interest in involving young children in research and creating more evidence-based programs at the museum focused on learning in early childhood.

"It's viewed as a benefit to our guests to have their kids take part in this research," Trautmann said.

The ECC lab's work at the Sciencenter has helped researchers share their findings, said Kushnir, who also examines how toddlers and preschoolers understand cause and effect.

"Parents are watching as you play with the kids, and they'll ask, 'What happened there?' and a researcher will explain it to them. Our researchers are disseminating directly to parents," she said. "So science gets done, museums get support, research gets support and students get trained."

The Sciencenter has shown its visitors "what research looks like," Kortenaar said, and Cornell graduate students have made two presentations on their study findings.

She also noted that parents and caretakers have largely been enthusiastic about involving their children in the experiments.

An exhibit based on the ECC lab's work and a plan to expand the partnership to include teaching along with research are under discussion. Kushnir added a service-learning component to her senior seminar to create interactive tools for young children and their parents to use the museum to learn about science in an age-appropriate way.

This partnership is part of a larger national trend encouraging informal childhood learning, Kushnir said: "We're part of a large group of museums and labs doing this kind of thing; it's happening in San Francisco, New York, Minnesota, Chicago -- every major urban center -- and tiny little Ithaca. As long as I'm around, this isn't going anywhere."

Sarah Cutler '16 is a student communications assistant for the College of Human Ecology.

Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, February 15, 2013

Ceci

Stephen J. Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology in the College of Human Ecology, will receive the 2013 Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Child Development Award, April 19 in Seattle from the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), the largest organization of developmental psychologists in the world, the organization announced this week.

Ceci is the author or co-author of more than 400 academic publications, and, according to the society, one of the most cited developmental psychologists -- 35 of his articles and books have been cited more than 100 times each. All told, his work has been cited about 17,000 times, according to Google Scholar, with an H index of 55 (meaning that 55 of his articles have each been cited at least 55 times).

In the award nomination, Ceci's seminal scientific contributions were noted in the areas of everyday intelligence (with the late Cornell Professors Urie Bronfenbrenner and Ulric Neisser), sex differences in mathematical ability (with Cornell Professor Wendy M. Williams) and the reliability of child witnesses (with Maggie Bruck of Johns Hopkins University).

"His work on children's testimony is among the highest impact in psychology, having been cited in every level of judicial reasoning all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 ruling in Kennedy v. Louisiana, which the Court reversed a lower court's death penalty verdict," says the SRCD. His research has been published in the leading developmental psychology journals as well as in the highly esteemed general journals in psychology, the award selections committee added.

The SRCD also noted that Ceci's work on the role of schooling in intelligence (Ceci, 1991, Developmental Psychology), cited around 600 times, according to Google Scholar, and his groundbreaking study of racetrack handicappers' intelligence (JEP:General, 1986), cited around 200 times, have been instrumental in shifting psychometrics from its reliance on theories of general intelligence toward a contextualist theory of everyday intelligence. This a view has become current among researchers even though it was not 25 years ago when Ceci's research began to challenge it by showing how cognitive performance is altered as a function of non-cognitive variables.

Ceci came to Cornell in 1980 and has since received lifetime distinguished scientist awards from the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Association for Psychological Science.

"We have run out of lifetime awards to recognize Steve's genius, which is a problem because he continues to do groundbreaking work," said Frank H. Farley, past president of APA and one of Ceci's nominators.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, August 6, 2012
 
Ceci

Ceci

 Children often use language differently than adults when referring to a person or thing, which can result in misleading testimony, according to a new Cornell study.

"This is the first study to examine developmental differences in referential language ability as a factor in children's ability to provide accurate testimony," said Stephen Ceci, professor of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. He co-authored the study, which appears in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (33:4), with lead author David Battin, Ph.D. '04, assistant professor at SUNY Institute of Technology, and Barbara Lust, professor of human development, also in the College of Human Ecology.

For the study, 63 children from 3 to 10 years old were shown a four-minute video in which a woman knocked down a stack of empty cans after being asked not to. The researchers compared the ability of the younger children (3-5 years old) with older children (6-10 years old) to explain who did it.

Children as old as 10 used words such as "a," "the" and "they" to refer to the woman. Small changes in the use of these words have big consequences in terms of meaning, including number and specificity, which is critical for legal testimony, the researchers said. Furthermore, the younger children were often incapable of correcting their misleading statements during follow-up questioning, because they don't understand what information listeners need for clarity. Overall, 13 percent of the younger children and 63 percent of the older children provided the information necessary for accurate identification of the wrong-doer.

"We found children lead adult conversational partners astray by using the definite article ['the'] to introduce a new person or a thing when they should have used the indefinite article ['a']," said Battin. "But, the big surprise in this research was the very high rate at which both younger and older children initially used the plural pronoun 'they' to refer to the person who committed the highly salient and disallowed act of knocking the cans down," he said.

Ceci, who has consulted for law enforcement and the legal system for several decades, elaborated: "When police interview young children in a suspected day care abuse investigation, they can be seriously misled when child after child keeps referring to the suspected perpetrator as 'they' rather than 'he' or 'she.' It can lead to the pursuit of multiple perpetrators when the actual situation had only one."

This research was funded by the Cornell Cognitive Studies Program.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, May 7, 2012

Mendle

Mendle

Boys who reach sexual maturity more rapidly than their peers have more problems getting along with others their age and are at a higher risk for depression, according to a Cornell study published in Developmental Psychology (47:2).

"The dramatic physical changes of puberty are paralleled by equally dramatic social and emotional changes because boys are transitioning into the new roles and expectations that go along with biological maturity," said lead author Jane Mendle, assistant professor of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. Co-authors include K. Paige Harden, University of Texas at Austin; Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Columbia University; and Julia Graber, University of Florida.

These changes mean big adjustments not only for the individual but also for their family and social network, she said. "In cases of rapid pubertal tempo, boys may progress through puberty at a rate that is faster than the social environment can feasibly respond."

During adolescence when friendships with peers are becoming increasingly important, it may be especially difficult for rapidly maturing adolescent boys to maintain friendships with their peers who aren't developing at a comparable rate, the researchers said. Problems getting along with others their age heighten the risk for depression and future mental health problems, they said.

Although there have been many studies on the timing of puberty, Mendle and colleagues were the first to research the effects of its tempo, beginning with a study published in 2010 that found a link between pubertal tempo and depression in boys. There was no association between the tempo of puberty and depression in girls, although the study replicated the well-established finding that an earlier timing of puberty in girls was associated with depression. The study also found that early pubertal timing in boys was associated with increased depression, though the effect of timing in boys was significantly smaller than the effect of tempo.

"These findings were an important step," Mendle said, "since virtually all of the puberty research to date has been conducted on girls. Very little is known about the role puberty plays in emotional health for boys, and virtually no research had been conducted on individual differences in puberty other than timing."

The current study looks at the potential mechanisms for the links they found between pubertal tempo and depression in boys, using a sample of 128 boys between ages 8 and 12 from the New York City metropolitan area. The parents and children in the study completed annual assessments measuring the child's level of physical development, depressive symptoms and quality of peer relationships over the course of four years.

Mendle and colleagues found that while most boys experienced fewer friendship problems over the transition from childhood to early adolescence, the early maturing and the rapidly maturing boys experienced more friendship problems over time. Those with the greatest increases in friendship problems had the greatest increases in depressive symptoms. Their analysis indicated that the link between maturation and depression was due to the changes in peer relationships.

When asked about the implications of her research for parents and people working with youth, Mendle replied, "Probably the biggest advice I can give is that puberty is a highly individualized process, and the way an adolescent appears externally is no indicator of cognitive or emotional maturity."

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.