Pubertal development varies considerably by ethnicity. For example African American girls have pubertal onset up to one year before Caucasian girls and Asians appear to mature later than Caucasians. Few studies of the psychosocial aspects of puberty have included samples of multiple ethnic groups. Studies that have compared puberty-related effects in African Americans versus Caucasians have generally observed ethnic differences. In general, the associations between pubertal status or pubertal timing and psychosocial factors are smaller in the African American samples.
It is useful to examine effects both within different ethnic groups and across groups. In examining effects of ethnicity it is also important to consider differences in Socio Economic Status (SES). A recent study reported that apparent differences in age of onset of puberty between Caucasian and Latino girls was no longer apparent after controlling for SES.
If psychological changes at puberty are ethnic-group specific, does this suggest a greater role for sociocultural factors and a lesser role for biological factors in understanding psychosocial changes at puberty? Or are there ethnic differences in the biology of puberty? There are no clear answers to these questions. Although it is unlikely that the biological basis of puberty differs greatly between ethnic groups, biological effects of puberty may be dependent on cultural context. The effects of hormones or their downstream effects may be critical in one social environment but minimal in another.
Finally, we need to understand what it is about ethnic differences that lead to findings that vary across ethnic groups. What is it about African American girls that appear to make them less vulnerable than Caucasian girls to the negative effects of early pubertal timing? Ethnicity is a construct that needs to be “unwrapped” before we will understand the meaning of the differences in the psychosocial correlates of puberty by ethnic group.