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Quality of early family relationships and the timing and tempo of puberty: Effects depend on biological sensitivity to context

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 January 2011

Bruce J. Ellis*
University of Arizona
Elizabeth A. Shirtcliff
University of New Orleans
W. Thomas Boyce
University of British Columbia
Julianna Deardorff
University of California
Marilyn J. Essex
University of Wisconsin
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Bruce J. Ellis, John and Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences, University of Arizona, McClelland Park, 650 North Park Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85721-0078; E-mail:


Guided by evolutionary–developmental theories of biological sensitivity to context and reproductive development, the current research examined the interactive effects of early family environments and psychobiologic reactivity to stress on the subsequent timing and tempo of puberty. As predicted by the theory, among children displaying heightened biological sensitivity to context (i.e., higher stress reactivity), higher quality parent–child relationships forecast slower initial pubertal tempo and later pubertal timing, whereas lower quality parent–child relationships forecast the opposite pattern. No such effects emerged among less context-sensitive children. Whereas sympathetic nervous system reactivity moderated the effects of parent–child relationships on both breast/genital and pubic hair development, adrenocortical activation only moderated the effect on pubic hair development. The current results build on previous research documenting what family contexts predict variation in pubertal timing by demonstrating for whom those contexts matter. In addition, the authors advance a new methodological approach for assessing pubertal tempo using piecewise growth curve analysis.

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