Longitudinal changes in Chinese adolescent girls’ physical growth, social contexts and mental health during the transition from primary to junior high school
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This study explores the longitudinal changes among a sample of early adolescent girls in China throughout their transition from primary to junior high school. Early adolescence is a time of multiple transitions and is associated with a range of mental health outcomes in Western literature. This study will be the first to examine developmental changes in early adolescence among Chinese girls. A sample of 425 Chinese girls completed a self‐report questionnaire at three time points: the end of primary school, the start of the first year of junior high, and the end of the first year of junior high. The questionnaire comprised a range of measures relating to bodily changes, puberty, and gender issues, social changes in family, peers and school, and a series of standardised measures of mental health including: life satisfaction, self‐esteem, psychosomatic symptoms, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and coping. Results were analysed using ANOVA to examine longitudinal changes in measures. Following an overview of the interrelations between all the variables in this study using One‐way ANOVA, longitudinal results were reported in three chapters: physical changes, social changes, and mental health. Findings relating to physical growth highlighted the co‐occurrence of pubertal development and school transition. Significant increases in body dissatisfaction and social comparisons of physical appearance were identified, indicating girls’ growing self‐consciousness about their physical changes. Specifically, apart from weight concerns, an interesting finding of this study was that girls in this study reported consistently higher and significantly growing concerns about their height stature. A significant decline in positive feelings of gender typing was also identified. In terms of social development, there were no longitudinal changes in the overall quality of attachment with parents or peers, as well as peer norms, suggesting that although variance exists across individuals, these constructs remained longitudinally stable in this sample. On the other hand, a significant decline was found in parental involvement. In contrast to the negative outcomes reported widely in Western literature following the primary to middle school transition, this study revealed an overall positive school transition experience. To be specific, overall school climate was reported to be more positive in junior high school, girls’ personal goals and school behaviours were improved longitudinally, and school transition problems were significantly smaller than expected prior to the transition. Analysis of developmental changes in mental health revealed no changes in global life satisfaction and depression. However, self‐esteem in general significantly reduced over time; simultaneously and interestingly, psychosomatic health, loneliness, and overall anxiety significantly improved after the transition. Furthermore, longitudinally girls adopted a wider range of coping strategies to deal with stressful events, although both the selection and efficacy evaluation varied across coping strategies among individuals. This study is the first to explore Chinese girls’ development during early adolescence. Developmental trends are established in Chinese adolescent girls’ physical, social, and psychological domains. Despite evidence consistent with the universalities of this life stage as established in Western literature, this study also highlights cultural differences in the developmental experiences of Chinese adolescents. Taken together, the findings reveal a positive developmental phase with little evidence of increases in adaptation difficulties or mental health outcomes. These empirical findings are in contrast to Western research, which often highlights early adolescence as a time of adaptation difficulties. Overall, this study contributes to the literature on adolescent development. The role of culture and implications for future research and practice are also discussed.