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Coping strategies linked to mental health risks during girls’ puberty

Puberty presents girls with a host of physical and emotional challenges. Why do some girls navigate the transition with resilience and enthusiasm, while others are more prone to depression or other mental health problems?

The answer may lie in subtle ways of thinking, acting and feeling that grow more prevalent during puberty, new Cornell research suggests.

Some youth brood about why they are upset, or repetitively revisit their problems with friends, said Jane Mendle, associate professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology. Others impulsively do whatever they can to change how they feel, while still others may keep a wary eye out for the possibility of bad social experiences, always assuming the worst.

These coping differences – called “transdiagnostic processes” – are normal habits and tendencies, Mendle said, but are also linked to risk for many psychological problems.

“Transdiagnostic processes are not psychological disorders, nor are they symptoms of disorders. They tell us about who is vulnerable and why,” Mendle said. “Our study shows that these processes help explain why mental health problems become more common in girls as they reach puberty. Our study also shows that the girls who show the biggest increases in these tendencies happen to be the girls who are most at risk.” 

Mendle is the lead author of “Puberty and Transdiagnostic Risks for Mental Health,” published Feb. 28 in the Journal of Research on Adolescence. Co-authors included Christopher Beam, assistant professor of psychology and gerontology at the University of Southern California; Mary Kate Koch, M.A. ’18, a graduate student in the field of human development at Cornell; and Kirsten McKone, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.

The study is the most detailed yet to investigate the influence of transdiagnostic processes during puberty, a time of established mental health risk for girls, Mendle said. Prior research has mostly focused on adults.

The researchers surveyed nearly 230 girls, ages 10 to 13, who were participants in 4-H summer and after-school programs affiliated with Cornell’s Program for Research on Youth Development and Engagement (PRYDE), or attendees of a middle school in upstate New York.

The children were asked about their experiences with four processes known to be important among adults – the tendencies to:

  • overthink stressful situations;
  • repeatedly talk about upsetting situations with friends;
  • worry about potential social rejection; and
  • react impulsively when upset.

According to the study, all of these transdiagnostic processes go up for all girls as they reach puberty. Girls who show the largest increases in these processes also show the greatest risk for depression at puberty.

“This is a time in life when kids are asked to contend with many changes and life strains,” Mendle said. “They have to figure out how to respond and they instinctively do so in different ways.”

Thinking too much about upsetting situations (known as rumination) increased the most. Repetitively discussing problems with friends changed least, possibly, the researchers speculated, because puberty is often a period of turmoil in friendships.

The study also showed that these transdiagnostic processes increased more for girls who matured physically earlier than their peers, a finding consistent with previous research showing early puberty poses more challenges.

Finally, the study concluded, the higher levels of these coping mechanisms and responses to distress help to explain why some girls are more vulnerable to depression at a sensitive stage of development.

“Puberty is a really fragile time for everyone, but certainly not every kid is going to struggle,” Mendle said. “This study helps us identify who’s going to struggle and some of the reasons they might.”

While these tendencies are associated with vulnerability, they also represent opportunities, Mendle said, because they can be altered. Children, parents and educators can look out for them and make adjustments.

“Puberty is filled with a lot of changes that kids cannot control,” Mendle said. “But we do have evidence that these processes, although they are going to go up for kids at puberty, are also things that kids are able to control and adapt.”

Assessments of adolescent mental health often have focused more on diagnoses and outcomes than the steps leading up to them, Mendle said, and more on hormones and environments than on how kids actually think and cope.

“It really boils down to what’s going through kids’ minds,” she said.

The new study, the co-authors said, offers “a novel, albeit preliminary, step in identifying how girls’ minds may shift at this pivotal developmental stage.”

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