Understanding Puberty and Its Measurement: An interview with Dr. Jane Mendle

It is impossible to disentangle adolescence from puberty. Nonetheless, adolescence researchers are still just starting to understand how best to assess and make sense of puberty.


Dr. Jane Mendle’s 2019 paper, Understanding Puberty and Its Measurement: Ideas for Research in a New Generation, is a fantastic read for anyone hoping to make sense of the recent developments and best practices in puberty research.

Dr. Mendle very kindly took some time to answer all of our questions about how puberty research has changed, and where it stands today.  

  1. What would you say is the main takeaway from your article?
    The foundational research on puberty was conducted from the 1970-1990s.  It was absolutely revolutionary and it shaped how a generation of scholars, including myself, study and think about this transition.  But our world has changed a lot over the past several decades and aspects of puberty have also changed in this time as well.  My collaborators (Rona Carter, Adriene Beltz, Lorah Dorn) and I hoped to raise questions -- and offer answers -- about these changes and to prime readers that these changes in puberty and society are meaningful ones.

  2. In the article, you state “We cannot assume that the methods and theories developed several decades ago will necessarily be applicable or appropriate for today’s youth”. Can you outline some of the reasons that we should be wary of making these assumptions?
    Today, kids are starting puberty at younger ages than in the past.  At the most basic level, this means that we might need to update the language level and types of questions we use for research.  We also have more awareness of diversity, new ways of thinking about sex and gender, and increased income inequality.  All of these contribute to the impact that physical maturation may have on the way kids think about themselves, their future life paths and opportunities, and the consequences of their adolescent choices and behaviors

  3. Why is it so important that we better understand the timing of puberty onset?
    We know that the earlier puberty occurs, the harder this transition can be and the more likely it is to be linked with psychological vulnerability.  An entire generation of kids entering puberty at younger ages presents real public health challenges.  Delaying population-wide trends in the timing of pubertal onset isn’t viable, which means that it would help to know whether and how the psychological response to puberty has changed in response to these shifts in pubertal onset.

  4. You mention in the article that puberty onset has shifted to a younger chronological age. Can you outline some of the reasons this has happened? What are some of the consequences of this shift?
    It’s worth mentioning that the age of puberty has bounced around over time.  If you look to historical records – the Hippocratic corpus, the writings of medieval physicians, various literary and artistic documents – you can see that when kids reach physical milestones has always had some flux to it.  With that said, the timing of some aspects of puberty – particularly at what age it starts -- is now unusually early relative to what’s been previously documented.  There’s no single, definitive reason for this, but there’s been research on exposure to common chemicals that have the potential to disrupt the endocrine system, as well as on diet, nutrition and obesity, and social stressors. 

    Early maturation creates a number of unique challenges, largely because kids look older and are treated as though they are older, even though they have the social, emotional, and cognitive resources that would be typical for their chronological age.  One possibility worth thinking about is if puberty is going to be harder and more stressful for kids today simply because it starts when they are younger and they haven’t had as much opportunity to build all the skills they will need for this transition.

  5. Based on the article, it seems that there is some debate about whether objective vs subjective indices of puberty are “better”. What are some of the pros and cons of these two approaches, and what types of research questions might they be best suited for?
    This is definitely a complicated topic and a lot of researchers have strong opinions about it.  Subjective measures tend to index kids’ perceptions of their own development.  They are easy, affordable, and less invasive (which is important, given the intimacy of the topic).  Of course, perceptions are just that:  they are not always accurate and they are shaped by context.  Objective measures of development usually involve physical exams or hormone assays.  They can be expensive and more difficult to collect, and kids and their parents vary in their willingness to participate in those types of studies – but the trade off is the precision and validity of measurement.  For researchers who care about biological accuracy or who are studying biological questions, the discrepancy between how mature kids think they are and how mature they actually are matters; they would want to use objective measures.  For researchers who prioritize self-concept and psychological reactions, subjective measures capture that very well.  Even though they may vary in their biological accuracy, they are still rich and informative.

  6. In the article, you summarize some of the structural and personal barriers to participating in research that diverse youth may experience. What are some of your recommendations for how researchers can help to overcome these barriers?
    These barriers are real and they are tough.  With any research on youth, parents are an essential part of the research process.  Our article recommends talking with parents and answering their questions, keeping lines of communication open, and understanding that parents may have concerns about how their lives and the lives of their children will be portrayed in research.  We also recommend partnering with trusted community organizations for recruitment and being open to feedback on the phrasing of the question, recruitment strategies, incentives, and feasibility of the research as originally planned.

  7. Ideas of gender and sexuality among adolescents are becoming increasingly diverse as youth push back against ideas of heteronormativity. What recommendations do you have for researchers to ensure that they are being sensitive to these changing identity constructs and labels?
    Increasing the use of open-ended questions, so that kids can provide terms for how they self-identify, is a relatively simple starting point.  And, of course, talking to kids is important.  Some researchers may find it worthwhile to conduct focus groups or pilot instruments with kids, particularly kids who may self-identify as gender nonconforming, to see what feedback they have and what they would like to know.

  8. What do you most want parents & adolescents (or the general public) to know about puberty research?
    When most people think about puberty, I think their minds go to the physical changes that are at the core of the transition.  But these physical changes don’t occur in isolation, and they are linked with powerful social, emotional, and cognitive changes too.  We see upheavals in friendships, changes in self-concept, different ways of thinking and reacting to circumstances.  These are also part of puberty and, in fact, they are some of the changes that can be most jarring.  I would want parents and adolescents to know that puberty involves more than the obvious physical changes -- and of course, I would want them to know that research on puberty exists at all.  Kids aren’t going through this transition in a vacuum and there are lots of researchers who recognize how important this time is and who cares about their experience during it.

  9. Looking forward, what are some questions in this field that you are most excited to get answers to?
    The field always surprises me.  Just when I think I know what I’d like to read more about, an article will come out on something that I haven’t even considered and it will steal my interest.  With that said, right now, I’m interested to see more work on transdiagnostic processes  -- or ways of acting, coping, thinking that are linked with risk for multiple psychological disorders -- at puberty.  I’m also interested in puberty’s relation with lifelong neurodevelopmental disorders, like autism spectrum disorder.  What, if anything, changes in symptoms when kids change?

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