The Troublesome Teens
Newsletter 5. 18 April 2017
For years it was accepted that by age 3, the brain was fully developed and those educational pioneers, the Jesuits believed that by seven their character and intelligence was fully formed - ‘Give me the child and I will return the man’. This model underpins the traditional view that if you want to deal with troubled kids you have to get them early.
Of course there is a lot of truth in this belief, early intervention is by far the best approach to helping kids in abusive or neglected environments and traditionally policy makers have focused the majority of their resources on this group. This concentration of resources on early intervention has a couple of shortcomings that need to be considered. These are:
Young children who are being neglected or abused are usually unable to seek the help they need and unless others discover their situation they will develop dysfunctional behaviours. Often this only emerges at the time of adolescence. They will not receive the support needed during their ‘early’ childhood.
Modern investigations into the brain development of children have shown that at the time adolescence hits, the child’s brain is in a state of re-organization and abuse at that time can cause specific, additional damage to cognitive and behavioural development.
In the first instance investigation of data that reflects behaviour shows that at about age 11 things change. The boys will start to act-out with dysfunctional behaviours that bring them to the attention of schools. This is an expression of the pain that has gone with their life of abuse or neglect and a reflection of their interrupted development.
The girls on the other hand act-in and the dysfunctional behaviours, although increased are not as obviously alarming as the boys. Girls internalize their pain and withdraw, a type of dissociation that is common for them at the time of their abuse. Girls present a real challenge to educators because unlike the boys who demand our attention the girls sit passively in the classroom often being completely compliant.
The journey through the teen years has been described as leaving childhood to become a productive, reproductive adult (there is a new essay on the webpage that gives a more detailed account of this developmental stage). It is a time when much happens but this Newsletter is about caring for kids with severe behaviours.
So the second concern is that the onset of puberty is characterized by a massive change in the brain’s frontal lobes. As with all stages of development when the time comes for the brain to learn a fundamental skill the area of the brain this skill is situated experiences a surge in the amount of grey matter and the presence of myaline increases 100 times.
Most brutality that occurs to teenagers is in the form of verbal abuse. As kids get older, perpetrators find it more risky to abuse them in a physical sense – they could fight back and hurt the aggressor. However, I don’t think society really understands the severity of the damage verbal aggression produces. There is a belief that words don’t hurt as much as blows but for adolescents the social acceptance is a necessity these words convey a cruel rejection of them and the effects are significant and enduring. The cruel paradox of this teenage abuse is that most often it is the kids whose early abuse created the dysfunctional behaviour that attracts this second round of abuse.
This abuse damages the child’s frontal lobes. As a result these children have trouble interacting with their social environment, have deficits in their expressive language, their memory is impaired in regards to habits, word association and the rational thought processes. MRI evidence has shown a 20% reduction in the size of the frontal lobe in adults with severe behaviours and some of this loss occurs at this time.
Of course we need to continue to strive for successful early intervention but the case is clear, authorities should rethink their piecemeal approach to protecting teenagers and providing proper support for those already damaged.