Puberty is a time of extreme change for young people. Not only are their bodies developing, but their brains are also maturing, pumping out hormones that trigger shifts in their emotions, priorities, and thoughts.
Although puberty is a time fraught with mood swings and emotional sensitivity, it can go deeper than this. Many mental health conditions begin to develop in puberty; if unsupported, young people can have difficulty regulating their emotions.
The Physical and Emotional Changes of Puberty
Puberty begins when the brain’s hypothalamus produces a hormone known as gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). This gets sent to another part of the brain, the pituitary gland, to produce two more hormones, luteinising and follicle-stimulating hormone.
Boys typically start puberty between the ages of nine and fourteen, and girls slightly earlier, between eight and thirteen. This age can be even lower in Black and Hispanic children.
Physical changes during puberty include:
- Growth spurts
- Weight gain
- Alterations in hormone levels, such as oestrogen and testosterone
- Vocal changes
- A shift in body odour
Puberty also influences emotional changes, such as:
- Mood swings
- Increased independence
- Changes in friendships
The Falling Age of Puberty
The average age of the onset of puberty has fallen rapidly in recent years. Data from JAMA Pediatrics found that the age of puberty onset in girls has decreased by almost three months per decade, with similar figures in boys. However, scientists are unsure why this is happening.
Research from Harvard University suggests that childhood trauma directly affects the pace of ageing. It found that violent or traumatic incidents in early life were linked to accelerated puberty and cellular ageing.
Early puberty is also linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and eating disorders. Starting puberty earlier than their peers can be anxiety-inducing and ostracising for children and teens, and this isolation may contribute to worse mental well-being.
Mental Health and Puberty
In the UK, one in six young people aged six to sixteen struggle with a mental health condition. The onset of puberty can influence this, contributing to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression due to:
- Hormones – Puberty is marked by a range of physical developments, which are triggered by the release of new hormones in the body. One of these hormones is oestrogen, which has been linked to depression. Oestrogen affects the production of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that regulates mood. Low levels of serotonin can contribute to feelings of depression, and the fluctuation of hormones can lead to mood swings, increased anxiety, and a decrease in self-esteem.
- Stressful life events – As children get older, they become exposed to more stressful life events, such as exams, social relationships, and family dynamics. Combined with puberty, this can influence mental health conditions such as depression.
- Physical development – One study published in the Journal of Affective Diseases states that physical development in puberty was a good predictor of increased depression rates. The results suggest that the physical and hormonal changes may contribute to a greater risk of depression.
- Social changes – As children mature, they naturally desire more autonomy and may place greater importance on their relationships with peers over those with family. This shift in priorities can lead to increased stress and anxiety, particularly when it comes to fitting in with their peers and navigating social dynamics at school. This stress may manifest as intense social anxiety, negatively impacting their mental health and well-being.
- Brain changes – The brain is still developing and changing during puberty. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for rational thinking and emotional control, has yet to mature fully. Therefore, young adults can struggle with emotions, causing enhanced stress and anger.
Additionally, children and teenagers going through puberty are often exposed to peer pressure from their friends, often to participate in risky behaviour. The extreme pressure to fit in can lead teenagers to use alcohol, smoke, and push boundaries when they do not want to.
The physical development of puberty may also influence eating disorders in young teenagers. Both boys and girls can worry about their body image, and changes in family dynamics and friendship groups can be overwhelming. Some teens may turn to restrictive or disordered eating to cope with these changes and exert more control over their lives.
Puberty Vs. Mental Health
The numerous changes that adolescence brings can mean the lines between a mental health condition and what can be explained by puberty are blurred. This is not an easy thing to distinguish, but there are some things that parents and caregivers can check in with to determine if there is cause for concern:
- Friendships – Teens going through puberty can struggle with new social groups and settings, making new friends and losing old ones. When children have a strong social circle consisting of just a few good friends, this can foster resilience, but social isolation can be a risk factor for developing mental health conditions.
- Happiness – Mood swings during puberty are incredibly common. Teenagers and young people can be more irritable, annoyed and angry, but if they never seem happy, this could indicate mental health difficulties.
- Hobbies – Hobbies and activities outside school protect against mental health conditions. If your child has lost interest in their former favourite hobby, this may indicate that something deeper is occurring.
However, even if teens tick all these boxes and appear happy on the surface, this doesn’t mean they don’t need support. Research shows that strong relationships between parents and children can help children and young adults respond to stress better, enabling them to thrive despite adversity.
Puberty has a significant influence on teen mental health, potentially causing greater levels of anxiety and depression. Although it can be exciting as they explore their new independence, it can also be worrying, lonely, and isolating, especially for those who start much earlier or later than their peers.
Young people often need more support during puberty to help them through difficult times. By providing them with stability, encouraging healthy conversations, and maintaining a healthy balance between school, health, and relaxation, parents can set young adults up for success throughout puberty and beyond.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Eckert-Lind C, Busch AS, Petersen JH, Biro FM, Butler G, Bräuner EV, Juul A. Worldwide Secular Trends in Age at Pubertal Onset Assessed by Breast Development Among Girls: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 2020 Apr 1;174(4):e195881. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.5881. Epub 2020 Apr 6. PMID: 32040143; PMCID: PMC7042934.
 Aggarwal-Schifellite, M. (2020, August 03). Violence and trauma in childhood accelerate puberty. Retrieved January 24, 2023, from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/08/violence-and-trauma-in-childhood-accelerate-puberty/
 Angold A, Worthman CW. Puberty onset of gender differences in rates of depression: A developmental, epidemiologic and neuroendocrine perspective.Journal of Affective Disorders. 1993;29:145-158. doi:10.1016/0165-0327(93)90029-j
 Strong parent connections enhance children’s ability to develop healthy response to stress. (2017, April 27). Retrieved January 23, 2023, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170427130754.htm