by Dr Enys Delmage – Consultant in Adolescent Forensic Psychiatry
Ngã Taiohi – National Youth Forensic Unit. Mental Health, Addiction & Intellectual Disability Service (MHAIDS), New Zealand

This article appears in our latest newsletter (Summer 2023) which can be downloaded here.

Adolescence generally represents a phase of increased impulsivity and sensation-seeking behaviour[i] in tandem with a developing ability to empathise[ii] and a heightened vulnerability to peer influence[iii], all of which have an impact upon decision-making. Also of relevance to the commission of offences, adolescents often display an intensification of emotional processing in response to threatening or rewarding stimuli when compared with adults[iv].

As commented on by the Royal Society[v], the frontal lobes of the brain are the slowest areas to develop[vi], in contrast with the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for reward and emotion-processing (which sits in the middle of the brain) – the fast phase of development of this region of the brain continues up to around age 25. The frontal lobes of the brain play a key part in various elements of cognition including judgement, empathy, consequential thinking, the inhibition of impulses and coherent planning. The imbalance of the stage of development of the frontal lobes and the amygdala has previously been thought to account for increased arousal and risk-taking behaviour in adolescence[vii] – the true picture is probably even more nuanced by the influence of the external environment and hormonal development triggers[viii]. The brains of children and adolescents are thus uniquely ill-equipped to engage in inhibition of impulses and contemplation of consequences which makes them particularly vulnerable to engaging in antisocial behaviour.

Research can transform lives. We want to support discoveries about what helps people with mental disorder who have been victims of criminal behaviour, or perpetrators of criminal behaviour, and their families, and the clinicians and others who treat them and, indeed, the wider community when its members are in contact with these problems. More effective prevention is the ideal, when this is not possible, we need more effective, evidenced interventions for recovery and restoration of safety.

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