A child and a bear
Girls abused during their early years are more likely to hit puberty earlier iStock

Trauma of sexual abuse during childhood can lead to a variety of psychological problems, from low self esteem and depression to dysfunctional sexual behaviour and drug abuse. A new study now sheds light on a physical effect of emotional or physical abuse on young girls.

According to a research conducted by the Pennsylvania State University and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, girls abused during their early years are more likely to physically mature and hit puberty eight to 12 months earlier than their non-abused peers.

Director of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network and professor of human development and family studies Jennie G. Noll, and Idan Shalev, assistant professor of bio-behavioural health, recruited 84 participants who had been sexually abused in childhood and 89 who had not.

The scientists found that sexual abuse in childhood was linked to earlier onset of puberty - about 8 months earlier for breasts and 12 months earlier for pubic hair.

The authors controlled for variables like race, ethnicity, family background, obesity, socioeconomic status and nonsexual traumatic experiences and found that this did not change their findings.

"Though a year's difference may seem trivial in the grand scheme of a life, this accelerated maturation has been linked to concerning consequences, including behavioural and mental health problems and reproductive cancers," Noll said.

"High-stress situations, such as childhood sexual abuse, can lead to increased stress hormones that jump-start puberty ahead of its standard biological timeline," she explained. "When physical maturation surpasses psychosocial growth in this way, the mismatch in timing is known as mal-adaptation".

This study is based on a small sample of participants and more research on the topic will be needed in the future to understand the health impact of early puberty on victims of abuse.

However, the researchers already say that early onset of puberty could leave girls at increased risk for psychosocial difficulties, menstrual and fertility problems, and even reproductive cancers due to prolonged exposure to sex hormones. "Additionally, early puberty is seen as a potential contributor to increased rates of depression, substance abuse, sexual risk taking and teenage pregnancy," Noll added.