Absent fathers hasten menstruation
Departure of the father can substantially
alter pubertal timing in girls.
Image: iStockphoto

Ground-breaking research conducted at the University of Canterbury suggests that experiencing father absence early in life can substantially alter the age at which girls get their first period.

The finding by PhD candidate Jacqueline Tither (Psychology), which will be published this monthin the Developmental Psychology Journal, affirms previous research which suggests that father absence is associated with early pubertal timing in girls.

However, this latest study employed a unique within-family design to control for the possibility that pre-existing factors such as genetic and socioeconomic differences between father-present and father-absent families account for the link between father absence and early pubertal timing in girls.

Ms Tither’s study compared 68 pairs of sisters from father-absent homes with 93 pairs of sisters from father-present homes in New Zealand. The sisters in each pair were full biological siblings who wereat least two years apart in age, and in the father-absent families, the biological parents had split up prior to the younger sister getting her first period.

She found that common processes such as separation, divorce and departure of the father from the home can substantially alter pubertal timing in girls.

“Specifically, this study found that younger sisters in father-absent homes had significantly earlier menarche than their older sisters. This was not the case in father-present families.”

“Importantly, the current study indicates that absent fathers are not created equal, and the impact of father absence on pubertal timing is more nuanced than previous research suggests.”

The study revealed that it was the younger daughters of the most dysfunctional fathers who were most likely to experience the earliest pubertal timing. Specifically, younger sisters with the most dysfunctional absent fathers got their first period 11 months earlier than either their older sisters or other younger sisters from father-absent families who were not exposed to serious paternal dysfunction. Ms Tither says psychosocial stress is one possible explanation for this finding.

“Specifically, the stress associated with living with a very dysfunctional father, and the removal of this stress when he left the family home, may have substantially accelerated pubertal development in daughters, providing the father departed early enough. For older father-absent sisters in this study who were also exposed to very dysfunctional fathers but for a longer time period, the stress may have been removed too late for them to also experience early menarche.”

Ms Tither now intends to test for possible mediating mechanisms that may account for this divergent pattern of sexual maturationin older and younger sisters.

“Given that early pubertal maturation in girls is associated with a variety of negative health and psychosocial outcomes - such as mood disorders, substance abuse, adolescent pregnancy, and a variety of cancers of the reproductive system - it is important that risk factors for early puberty are identified,” she says.

Editor's Note: Original news release can be found here.