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Why The Huge Testosterone Surge in Young Boys is a Myth (and what really causes their behaviour to change!)

It’s almost guaranteed to pop up on every parenting related discussion forum, website or chat room you visit.

“Did you know that young boys, around 3, 4 or 5 have a HUGE surge of testosterone? That’s why their behaviour is so difficult at this age”

Seems like a great explanation for the difficult behaviour many parents face at this age doesn’t it?

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As a mother of three boys I know what it’s like (but then as a mother of a girl I know she can behave exactly the same). This information seems to trace back to one source, not an eminent Endocrinologist, well known lab normal ranges or some recent clinical research – but the book ‘Raising Boys’ by Steve Biddulph. A perpetual bestseller, treasured by hundreds of thousands (millions?) of parents around the world.

Despite its popularity however, the testosterone surge discussed in it is just not true, at least not according to my extensive research, though I’d be happy to proven wrong if anyone can point me elsewhere?

In my opinion, it’s right up there with Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, a myth borne out of our need to pathologise normal child behaviour. Thousands of parents are being misled about this mythical testosterone surge on a daily basis, blaming their child’s behaviour on a hormone spike that doesn’t exist.

 

What Really Happens to Testosterone Levels in Childhood?

Testosterone is an important androgen, or what we more commonly know as sex, hormone produced by both males (in the testes and adrenal glands) and females (in the ovaries and adrenal glands). It is an important hormone for both genders, playing a vital role in bone density and muscle mass, as well as the more obvious development of sexual characteristics.

Immediately after birth the testosterone levels of boy babies are around around 120mg/100ml – around half the level of an adult male. They then rise fairly significantly to around 260mg/100ml between the second and third month , but then begin to fall very quickly after. By the time the baby boy is 6 months old research shows that his testosterone levels will be extremely low where they will remain until the boy approaches puberty.

The following table shows the changes in testosterone levels as puberty approaches:

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I cannot find a single reference to a surge in testosterone in any clinical trial data or medical text book, and believe me I have looked – hard. The only testosterone spurt that is well documented is the one that occurs in the first few months of life.

 Research in 2002 did however indicate that the famed testosterone surge does not exist, with findings showing that:

” Statistical analysis did not prove changes in salivary testosterone concentrations in the preadolescent period of life, with an exception of the insignificant fall at the age of 7 years, and an insignificant rise at the age of 9 years in girls.”

Which led the researchers to conclude that:

“Generally it can be concluded, that salivary testosterone levels in our pre-pubertal subjects remained stable.”

 

This is a pretty good graphic showing the changes in testosterone levels by age during childhood (you’ll note how flat the pre-pubertal section is):

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Not a testosterone spurt in site!

 

What’s Really up With a Four Year Old Boy’s Behaviour Then?

In short – Us, me, you, parents, adults, society……..

We don’t really get normal little boy behaviour, which is strange given that around half of all adults have been one. Little boys (and that is what a four year old is) need to play, play, play, play, play and play some more. They need open space, nature, air. They need trees to climb, balls to kick, mud to squelch, frisbees to throw. They need to be allowed to use their amazing imaginations and explore the world with their whole bodies.

Instead they get school, schedules, strict rules, told to sit still, cooped up inside, taught to read and write, not speak unless they raise their hand and screen time.

These things and four year old boys don’t mix. That’s not the boy child’s fault, it’s totally ours for not understanding or meeting their needs.

So what happens? Frustration and a heck of a lot of it. That can either get internalised (anxiety, depression, insular withdrawn behaviour, sulks and the like), but in the case of most four year old boys it gets externalised (kicking, biting, hitting, throwing, punching, yelling, screaming, whining – you know the ones I mean…) which actually in a way is more healthy than internalising the behaviours, but definitely not socially acceptable.

This frustration has nothing to do with testosterone, lets not blame the failings of modern society onto a chemical. The thing is if we do blame it on testosterone we can appease our conscience, we think “oh it’s OK, little Johnny is just having a testosterone spurt” but that’s dangerous because it stops us from dealing with the REAL issue, which is why I get so very mad at how large and out of control this myth has become.

 

Sarah

 

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Posted on June 9, 2014, in Preschoolers, Tweens and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Brilliant article Sarah. It’s just another case of self fulfilling prophecy. Parents hear about this surge in testosterone and are expecting it, so of course they start looking out for it, and begin passing off normal childhood behaviours as symptoms. I think the amount of energy a child has and their need to move, is greatly underestimated in our society, and with just a few extra hours outside running around, so much of that pent up energy would be dispersed resulting in a much calmer, happier child.

  2. I’m so glad you wrote this. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been told about testosterone surges in little boys (I have three). And I always thought it sounded dubious. When I looked into it, I came to exactly the same conclusion as you. It all traces back to Steve Biddulph’s book. And there seems to be no supporting evidence.
    Such a shame really.
    Good thing there are so many things to enjoy about being a parent of little boys 😀

  3. If this is true then I’m not sure what’s happening with my 4yo boy. He is home educated so there is no school, sitting still, raising his hand or strict rules. We have at least an hour and a half of physical activity every morning, outside unless the weather is terrible, and little screen time (30-60 min 2-3 times a week). The rest of the time he is free to play, use his imagination, be read to and have his questions answered (some of which are about what things say or how to write something). But he still has a lot of the problems you describe. Any ideas what’s wrong?

  4. I’m curious if any of your research explained why little boys need so much play of the kind you described and/or why it’s so markedly different from girls. If it’s not testosterone, what it is?

  5. My son’s attitude and behaviour changed dramatically at the age of four, and I was told about the testosterone thing *after* it happened. He experienced none of the negatives you describe above (my son was at kindergarten for a few days a week, a few hours a day, mostly playing, as he had been since age 3). I’m quite willing to be corrected regarding testosterone, but your explanation misses the mark entirely for my son. Funnily enough he is now 5 and has started school and his behaviour etc have settled and improved and he is his delightful self again! School is perhaps good for him!

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