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I thought I would post about this here, as I know my mums of boys believe this, and I’ve been guilty of passing this information on without checking it.

We often hear of the “testosterone surge” in boys around the age of four, which causes some behavioural “difficulties”, and then drops again. It turns out that this idea has come solely from Steve Biddulph’s book, “Raising Boys”, and has been diceminated as fact. In reality, he does not cite any sources for this claim (except “Esquire” magazine, which is not a primary source), and all the research into testosterone in boys suggests that it IS NOT the case. In fact what happens is there is a “mini puberty” in the first three months of life, where testosterone does surge and drop, then testosterone in both boys and girls remains very low until around ten, when puberty begins.

So far, so Facebook - Steve Biddulph is exposed as getting his facts wrong - and is alleged to be refusing to answer questions on his evidence on the subject.

Last night, my husband took up the baton and tried to find out a bit more and cite sources. He discovered that Steve Biddulph may have made an honest (but nevertheless, totally inaccurate) mistake. It turns out that while there is no surge in testosterone at age four, there is a surge in Lutenizing Hormone, which creates the building blocks for testosterone, between the ages of 4 and 6. Effectively, Lutenizing Hormone builds the machine which WILL produce testosterone between the ages of 4 and 6, but that machine doesn’t get switched on until puberty. Here are his (brief) findings, with citations:

There is a rise in Luteinzing hormone between the ages of 4-6 in boys which drops again at around seven. The profiles for LH, FSH, testosterone and Estradiol are different for boys and girls. Lutenizing hormone stimulates leydig cell production of testosterone, it is curious that while there is an increase of LH in boys between 4-6 there is not a corresponding increase in follicle-stimulating hormone, testosterone, or estradiol during this period.

Debbie Guatelli-Steinbergy and Jennifer Boyce, “The Postnatal Endocrine Surge and Its Effects n Subsequent Sexual Growth” p663-681 in Preedy, Victor R. (editor) Handbook of Growth and Growth Monitoring in Health and Disease NewYork: Springer. (2012)


Lutenizing Hormone does not have an effect on behaviour, and the most likely reason for “challenging” behaviour at this age is developing independance and sense of self - this is the same for both boys and girls. Sadly, it looks like Steve Biddulph made a big mistake in mixing up LH and testosterone which has become accepted fact, when there is no basis for it, and right now, he isn’t owning up to it :(

Angie

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I think this is a complex one. I’m not a fan full stop of anyone, scientist or not, waving around one particular molecule, hormone, amino acid etc as the cause of a socially demonstrated phenomenon. I’ve spent years of my life trying to understand this stuff at the molecular level and the action of any chemical in the body is immensely complex, depending on the interplay of many, many systems, factors like ph, pressure, temperature, light, etc etc etc. It is really, really complicated and we probably understand a tiny amount of what’s really going on in the body. To pin something as complex and nebulous as behavioural changes around the age of 4 in boys on a single hormone does seem a little optimistic to me, especially as there is not usually a simple more chemical=more effect relationship in the body’s systems anyway. I feel the same way when people try to pin activity of a particular part of the brain onto a particular action, when in fact its much more complex.

However, I have to say it doesn’t matter too much to me whether this effect is caused by testosterone or purple monkeys howling at the moon, at the end of the day, I think if you ask a lot of parents with both girls and boys they will confirm that this effect seems to be a real thing. It happens in home educated kids as much as ones in school/nursery at this age. It also happens in families like mine where we made a real, informed effort not to introduce gender stereotypes(I mean, I lived in a radical feminist commune for 5 years, I had a sense of what’s what here)-and where I didn’t even know about this until a few years after my son was this age. My experience is that yes, there is a push for independence at age 4/5 but that’s not what is being talked about by Steve Biddulph, its more an aggression, a wild energy, an inability to listen to instructions. I actually think almost every single NT boy I know has hit this by around age 6, and it often leaves parents reeling and often gets labeled as bad behaviour when-while it may be undesirable and need dealing with-it is not something boys often have enough control over that, say, reasoning or punishment or remonstrating will actually be very effective. I don’t much think it matters what causes it, personally, whether its social or chemical*. And I am completely up for the idea that some girls will also experience something like this, though like I say I saw nothing like what I saw in my son in my two girls-I think sometimes people see it as an excuse for bad behaviour in boys and its not. What I think is important is that it is a real phenomenon and needs to be treated as such, and that is far more important to me than the biochemistry behind it.

I suppose the only issue is that there is a false veneer of scientific knowledge being thrown around and that’s annoying. Really, it would carry more weight with me if Biddulph just said, “in my years and years in this job I have seen this effect many, many times and I think its real and unalterable in this society we have now.”. Because I think to many people with a bit of scientific training, the second someone says something like “ah, this behaviour is the reptilian brain in action”, its common to just dismiss a lot of what they say, whereas if they described their experience (as opposed to demonstrate their complete lack of scientific training) their opinions would carry a lot more weight.

(*that’s not true really as I’m studying chemistry but you get the idea)

Interesting.  Thanks for posting this.  I’ve often wondered where the idea of testosterone surges came from, and the literature source, but never bothered to look it up.  So, thanks to your hubby!  And I appreciate you posting a source.

Bummer about Biddulph’s silence.  If he keeps this silence, it’s not really a great example of the “role model” he advocates for so strongly.  Hopefully he’s off researching it himself, and will say something soon on the matter.

Endocrinology is complex stuff, and like everything else in science, I do believe they’re just scratching the surface.  Perhaps his statement was based on what was thought at the time of writing?  Sources would have been a nice touch though…..

SAHM to DS- 10/08 and DD 11/10

Like Edith I have experienced this in my son at around the age of five.  I spoke to my mother about it to see if my brothers were the same at that age and sure enough they were.  I have the Stephen Biddulph book and had forgotten that he had written that.  My daughter has yet to reach that age so I am yet to experience that age in a female. 

It is a complex issue but I would not say it led to behavioural difficulties, more that I saw it as a sign that my son was growing and changing.  It is very easy to label and look for reasons behind things when they are not easy to pin point or address.

It will be interesting to see what the outcome is!

Very interesting, and thanks for posting. I agree with Edith, from my experiences and others around me it does seem to be a real phenomenon. I am more interested in how to handle it than the exact biochemistry behind it. However, I’ll also be looking out for the outcome and hope that Mr B responds!

Mum to two boys, Roan (Nov 08) and Jude (Oct 11) and a little girl, Amalie (Jan 14). Trying to parent as gently and lovingly as I can.

Is this a bit like mid-life crises, which seem to be a fictional creation of society?  If you are convinced and then look hard enough, you will always find evidence…

Overall though, I think that boys get pretty bad press, and Biddulph has done some good work towards reducing that.  He’s clearly not a biochemist, a medical practitioner or an expert in testosterone though, and will have lost a lot of trust from his readership.

Husband to an amazing wife and learning all the time from twins boys (Dec 2007) and their younger brother (March 2011)

I certainly hope that’s not the case, that he’ll lose trust.  I think it depends on how he ultimately handles it.  I’ve read two of his books on boys (the two?) and overall like what he has to say, and see his point on many things (role models/ out of the home male mentors/rites of passage etc).  The testosterone thing was certainly a convenient “write-off” in terms of the behavioural challenges parents of boys see around this age.  I definitely am seeing them, and have several friends who are as well. 

Without question he should have cited his sources more thoroughly and done the requisite fact checking, but also isn’t the onus partly on the other authors who took his words without doing their share of fact checking?  And I know I used to tell my own students, never take anything they read at face value- textbooks have been known to be wrong, and in primary literature, data can be misinterpreted/misrepresented (if, heaven forbid, the researcher has an agenda, which unfortunately does happen).  So if something seems fishy/too convenient, we shouldn’t be afraid to do our own checking up, like Angie’s husband did.  Of course I think we’re generally too busy with kids and life in general to do that, and really these people are presenting themselves as experts, so why shouldn’t we take what they say as fact?  This is a good reminder.

SAHM to DS- 10/08 and DD 11/10

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