Often when we read an article about a child who has committed some unthinkable crime for a child- like murder- we do not think about the child’s brain capabilities. In fact, we assume that teenagers know right from wrong. We know even young kids, even from the age of 2 or 3 when they understand the concept of consequences, start to understand right versus wrong and we incorrectly assume that once that process develops, that the child can then be held fully accountable.
Research suggests that brain development is a much longer process, however. Dr. Jay Giedd, who studies brain development and also does research for the National Institutes of Health has stated that “researchers have not only confirmed that teens have brains; they are now beginning to understand the biological basis for their sometimes peculiar behavior… One important finding showed that the frontal cortex area- which governs judgment, decision-making and impulse control- doesn’t fully mature until around age 25.”
Another study done by Dartmouth indicated that the brain significantly shifts in nature after the age of 18. This kind of research gives us a more in depth look into the mind of a teenager, as we realize that they are not just irrational or illogical because of age and immaturity, but because they are physically incapable of being anything else.
A key difference between adolescent and adult brains concerns the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe of teenagers is composed of different quantities and types of cell matter and has different neural features than the adult brain. Researchers have linked the frontal lobe (especially a part of the frontal lobe called the prefrontal cortex) to “regulating aggression, long-range planning, mental flexibility, abstract thinking, the capacity to hold in mind related pieces of information, and perhaps moral judgment.” In children, the frontal lobe has not developed sufficiently to perform these functions. Throughout puberty, the frontal lobe undergoes substantial transformations that increase the individual’s ability to undertake decision-making that projects into the future and to weigh rationally the consequences of a particular course of action.
Kids who haven’t yet had enough time to fully develop these crucial parts in their brains just simply don’t have the logical capabilities to walk through the steps and truly grasp the consequences, or the extreme seriousness of what they might be considering. If you stop to think about your own life, and how vastly different your life was at age 27 versus how it was at age 22, you could probably start to understand that perhaps your mind was different. You thought things through on another level that you didn’t when you were a teenager, much less in your early 20′s.
This kind of research is vital to helping juveniles who, although they commit serious crimes, do not deserve the unfair sentence of life without parole.
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