Alexithymic traits can explain the association between puberty and symptoms of depression and anxiety in adolescent females.
van der Cruijsen R., Murphy J., Bird G.
Symptoms of internalizing disorders such as depression and anxiety increase in adolescence, especially in females. However, gender differences in depression and anxiety symptoms emerge only after puberty onset. Levels of alexithymia, characterized by difficulties identifying and describing one's emotions, are elevated in depression and anxiety, and fluctuate across adolescence in a gender-specific manner. This study investigated changes in alexithymia across adolescence, and explored the potential role of alexithymia in the development of depression and anxiety, separately for females and males. Accordingly, 140 adolescents aged 11 to 21 years (77 female) completed self-report measures of alexithymia, depression and anxiety, and pubertal development. For females alone, pubertal maturation was associated with alexithymic traits (specifically difficulties identifying and describing feelings), as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety. After accounting for alexithymia, the relationship between puberty and depression and anxiety was absent or reduced in females. Thus, alexithymic traits may have differential consequences for males and females, and possibly contribute towards increased depression and anxiety symptoms in females during adolescence. We propose that developmental changes in alexithymia should be considered when studying the onset and development of internalizing psychological disorders during adolescence.