A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Mind the gap: Why girls develop faster than boys

Group of teenagers eating lunch - Emotional maturity of boys vs girls

Girls develop faster than boys. The gap narrows starting in high school.

It’s an accepted fact that girls develop sooner than boys physically and emotionally, but to understand why this is, we need to travel back through thousands of years of human history.

Why the gap?

The development gap between boys and girls is explained by the theory first put forward by Charles Darwin. It’s part of our evolutionary process.

“Certainly, long ago there may have been good reason for a female to choose an older male mate,” said Dr. James Meyer, a Marshfield Clinic pediatrician. “The older male is likely to be stronger and more established in his societal role.”

From an evolutionary perspective, women develop faster so they do not choose a male of their same age, who is less able to protect and provide for them and their potential child. This is, of course, no longer the norm in modern society.

“As we’ve developed shared values and morals as a society, that tends to mute the process that biology was trying to encourage,” Meyer said.

Meyer said boys catch up to girls in development by late high school. Males and females don’t finish brain development until about age 25.

Big decisions, immature brains

Meyer said, though brain development is not finished until around age 25, “The major changes in thought processing have already occurred,” for kids in their late teenage years.

However, the frontal part of the brain, which largely controls judgment, does not fully mature until around age 24.

“People learn from experiencing mistakes, and parents can be reassured that their children will likely do better managing their money, activity and behavior, when the brain is more mature,” Meyer said.

For older teenagers or young adults, Meyer said, “Parents should encourage the moments when they see their child making good adult choices and also be available to them as a resource for judgment calls involving important matters like voting, college choices, financial matters and marriage.”

Friendships may fracture in adolescence

For adolescents, Meyer said the maturity gap impacts friendships between boys and girls who played well together in early childhood but are no longer on the same wavelength.

Additionally, each individual enters puberty in his or her own time. A child may be behind or ahead of friends in the process. This makes children feel anxious about being different from their peers.

“Kids can feel like their friends aren’t going through the same thing and they stand out because of that,” Meyer said. “Part of puberty is always that the kid is uncomfortable with their body changes. They may feel isolated.”

Reassure your children

Meyer said it’s important for parents to reassure kids what they’re going through is normal and will just take time to get through. Be available to your child to listen if they would like to express their worries or ask questions. If you have questions or concerns about your child’s development, talk to your provider.

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