It’s just about every parent’s worst nightmare: a child on the brink of adulthood sees her friends lighting up a cigarette or uncapping a beer and decides she’s adult enough now to do the same. The concerns are justified, too, according to a recent survey that found early puberty was linked with greater prevalence of substance abuse.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin surveyed 6,500 boys and girls, ages 11 to 17, about their perceived pubertal timing according to measures of body hair growth, vocal changes, height, skin changes, and facial hair growth in boys and breast development and menstruation in girls. Published in the journal Addiction, the survey found, in the last three months, that students who had used cigarettes, marijuana, or alcohol had earlier perceptions of biological maturity than their peers.

“We all go through puberty,” Jessica Cance, lead researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, said in a statement. “We remember it being either an easy transition or a very difficult one.”

Cance began her research inspired by the information gap between puberty’s biological changes and the social-psychological contexts in which those changes take place.

Anti-smoking advocates have long cited tobacco manufacturers' attempts to make cigarettes look “cool” as a way to lure children into the habit. Now, Cance’s research adds to the argument, finding that any social advantages children perceive to gain from smoking could have their roots in kids feeling mature before their peers and turning to cigarettes and alcohol to display that maturity.

“While puberty is often thought of as a solely biological process,” Cance said, “our research has shown that pubertal development is a combination of biological, psychological and social processes that all likely interact to influence risk-taking behavior like substance use.”

Cance’s findings agree with previous research that found girls who go through puberty earlier than their peers are more likely to engage in drug use and sexual intercourse, putting them at greater risk for early pregnancy. One 2005 study cited health care providers as effective barriers for preventing this risky chain of events.

“It is important that health care providers are sensitive to the risks associated with early maturation among young girls and provide preventive screening, education, and counseling related to alcohol use and sexual initiation for this group,” the researchers wrote.

Another study found that girls who began going through puberty at age 12 or younger were more likely to begin drinking alcohol than girls who went through puberty later.

As for Cance’s research, she believes that the study opens up an important discussion on how children feeling more mature than their peers can impact their decision-making in behavior that is typically seen as “mature.”

“Our study suggests that being the first girl in the class to need a bra, for example, prompts or exacerbates existing psychological and social aspects,” she said, “that can, in turn, lead to substance use and other risky behaviors early in life.”

Source: Cance J, Ennett S, Morgan-Lopez A, Foshee V, Talley A. Perceived pubertal timing and recent substance use among adolescents: a longitudinal perspective. Addiction. 2013.