The myth of testosterone surges

This week’s post is all about the four year old testosterone surge in four year old boys. Spoiler alert: I think it’s nonsense – not that four year old boys can’t be challenging (believe me, I know how challenging four year olds can be), but that a testosterone surge is what ‘causes’ it. And before I start, I’ll preface all this by saying that I’m writing specifically about behavioural issues in children without any health issues or underlying conditions, and am totally unqualified to comment about children who may have other challenges that could contribute to behavioural issues.

As a mother of four year olds, I always tend to notice when other parents of similarly-aged children post anything in Facebook groups, particularly if they’re asking for help and advice. And if the child (or children – I’m usually on the Multiples NZ page) is a boy and has been naughty recently, without exception somebody will eventually remark that four year old boys have a testosterone surge, and that this affects their behaviour and makes them really challenging, and therefore you should just ‘hang in there! [smiley face]’. The four year old testosterone surge is so widely believed that people don’t even question it – the idea that preschool boys’ hormones suddenly go haywire, and that’s why they become challenging. Here’s a nice recent photo of my favourite four year old boy in the whole entire world, just because he’s gorgeous:


Here’s a great facts-based blog post from Evidence Based Parenting that explains how there’s no actual surge, and how the whole idea started by Steve Biddulph, the author of a range of books largely based on the premise that boys and girls are dramatically different creatures and need very different parenting styles and strategies. I haven’t read any of Biddulph’s books: I fundamentally disagree with his premise, largely because of my own experience of raising a boy and a girl together and treat them entirely equally, and watching as they smash any childhood gender stereotype you care to name. Biddulph is not a scientist, doctor, or biochemist, so he isn’t actually qualified to make calls about the presence, or impact, of a testosterone surge, but that hasn’t prevented his views from becoming accepted parenting wisdom. The surge myth quoted everywhere, in both blogs and in mainstream media (ALL THE TIME), usually with the preface “Scientists believe…” – but none of these scientists ever seem to be named.

Here’s the relevant extract from that great blog post I’ve linked to above:

Testosterone and behaviour
I’m just going to hold whether there is or isn’t a testosterone surge to the side for a minute and look at whether testosterone could even be the cause for such behaviour.
First of all, this assumes that 4 year old boys behaviour is worse than that of girls of the same age. Although as the mother of a 2 year old girl, I would love to consider that to be true it is certainly not the case from 3 to 4 year old girls that I know.

Anyway, the link between testosterone and behaviour is contentious to say the least. The most that can be said from years of studies is that increased testosterone may be linked to increased levels of aggression 1 but there is certainly no link between testosterone and inattention or overactivity 2. So, if four years old suddenly started to fight or behave in an agressive manner it could be linked to an increase in testosterone. However, a four year old who does not listen or is generally acting up is not likely to be caused by any hormonal changes.

Testosterone through the lifespan
Okay, so  is there a surge at age four. Or during childhood at all.


Below is an image of what the testosterone levels throughout the lifespan look like. There is a surge of testosterone for boys but that occurs at between 0 and 6 months, there is nothing else until puberty. Notice that in order for the testosterone surge to be double that experienced as a baby they would be experiencing testosterone levels equivalent to that of puberty.


So, that’s pretty straightforward, right? There isn’t a testosterone surge.

I’ve been thinking about why it annoys me when people trot out the surge myth in response to parents’ requests for help with challenging behaviour. The author of the Evidence Based Parenting blog post dislikes it because she regards it as an example of medicalising normal childhood behaviour. That’s a valid criticism, but it isn’t what bothers me. Another of my fellow testosterone surge disapprovers, Sarah Ockwell-Smith, dislikes the myth of the surge because she thinks it speaks of a failure to understand the type of parenting that little boys need – to run around, be noisy, etc. As per my Biddulph mini-rant above, I don’t agree with Sarah, mainly because I disagree that little boys and little girls are different in their needs or behaviour because of the shape of their genitalia.

Here’s why I dislike the surge myth being perpetuated: it disempowers parents. If you were to believe that hormonal surges governed your four year old son’s behaviour, you’d logically assume that you can’t do anything about it without some kind of medical treatment, and must therefore put up with whatever challenging behaviour your son is exhibiting.

If I post a cry for help regarding my son’s naughtiness, and you reply with “Oh, all four year old boys are like that – hang in there Mumma, you’re doing a great job!” that’s really kind and reassuring of you, but it doesn’t actually stop the mayhem in my house. That parent isn’t asking for a pat on the back for not hitting the wine at 10am or running off into the night: she wants help with her child’s behaviour.

By replying with platitudes about hormonal surges, you’re effectively telling them that they don’t have any ability to influence their son’s behaviour, and that it’s a waste of time trying behavioural management strategies, because he’s in the thrall of his hormones. That is just not true. You are the parent: you CAN do something about how your kids behave. It isn’t easy or fun to tackle difficult behaviour, and it can involve trial and error as you get to know what prompts your child to behave in a challenging way, how they respond to different types of consequences, and what their ‘currency’ might be – and your kid might even get naughtier before things improve, as they push hard against whatever boundaries you’ve erected. But I’ve learned (the hard way) that the way to improve your children’s challenging behaviour is to actually try to improve it. Because what’s the alternative? If you leave your four year old boy to run riot, on account of it all being his hormones and not really anything you can influence, how is he going to learn about acceptable behaviour, consequences, doing stuff to contribute to a harmonious family life, and all that good stuff? And if that’s life with him at four, what’s he going to be like after a couple of years at school?

I should also point out that a lot of mothers of four year old girls can tell you that their daughters are also hugely challenging at that age. It isn’t a ‘boy’ thing, it’s a ‘some four year olds are hard work at times’ thing. Reducing your child’s behaviour to a generalisation, based on their sex, is not actually going to limit the tantrums or naughtiness in your house – you’ll still be dealing with the drama. Some four year old boys and girls are challenging, and some are perfectly delightful. Long-term readers will remember that Hattie was hard work from 18 months old, but outgrew it when she turned three (and really is a delight 99% of the time these days), whereas Joe started his high jinks from three onwards, and finally sorted himself out when we started our game-changing reward chart system.

(Please, don’t take this as an opportunity to send me messages about how your son was a little shit at the age of four, and your daughter was an angel, and therefore the four year old testosterone surge is definitely A Thing. That’s a sample of two. It doesn’t prove anything, other than the fact that some kids are easier than others.)

If your four year old is being challenging – and there’s a good chance that it could happen, given that many four year olds tend to be hugely curious, quite forgetful when it comes to rules that don’t suit them, and fond of having a laugh at whatever cost – and you want to do something about it, here’s what I suggest: do some reading; think about what encourages good behaviour in your kid; and consider what consequences would make sense for them. In other words, empower yourself!

If you’ve enjoyed this post please hunt for ‘Knocked Out Jacq’ on Facebook and like the page to stay up to date with future stories!



2 thoughts on “The myth of testosterone surges

  1. Thanks for this post. I’ve been reading your posts on and off for a few years – I have a four year old daughter who has extremely challenging behaviour so I know it’s not governed by testosterone. I’m going to give your chart a go… fingers crossed we see results!

    1. You are so welcome! I hope the sticker chart system helps you with your daughter. Let me know how you get on! And hang in there – I’m sure they’ll all outgrow it eventually… 🙂

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