Juvenile delinquency is a legal term for an act by a young person (usually below 18), which would be considered a crime if committed by an adult. That makes it a legal problem.
Or is it?
The offender has disobeyed social rules and infringed on the rights of others. There is apparently nothing wrong with his mental state. Shouldn’t people involved in his socialization – parents, teachers and law-makers – be the ones dealing with him? Is this a social problem?
Psychoanalytic theories have linked aspects of parenting to the development of conduct disorder in childhood, which is carried forward into adolescence as juvenile delinquency. Is this, then, a psychological problem?
For any behavior to develop, something has to happen in the child’s brain at the level of brain cells. How do brain cells process information received from a child’s experience? Is this a medical problem then?
In juvenile delinquents it has been noted that there is often a history of
- complications during birth (and possible brain damage)
- restlessness, impulsivity, difficulty concentrating and other symptoms of ADHD, deficits in language-based skills, low IQ in many (again, minimal brain damage is said to be the cause)
- school work being neither enjoyable nor rewarding because of the above, and all the consequences of being a ‘bad’ student (problems with peers and teachers) including low self-esteem, and aggressiveness to cope with the constant sense of failure and helplessness
- impaired coordination, or clumsiness
- abnormal EEGs in >50% (general population 5-15%) indicating abnormality in parts of the brain
- psychotic symptoms like misperceiving what is said, episodic paranoia, and occasional visual and auditory hallucinations
All these deficits are subtle – very subtle – and linked to minimal brain damage that cannot be seen on a CT scan or MRI. If any of them were just that bit more, a diagnosis of epilepsy, schizophrenia, or mental retardation would have been made.
Admittedly no single factor – social, psychological or neurological – accounts for a child turning into a juvenile delinquent.
BUT. . .
growing up with violence, coupled with an intrinsic vulnerability (like conditions listed above), predisposes a child to delinquency.
AND. . .
the path from behavior problems in childhood to delinquency is not inevitable. There are things that can be done to prevent such an outcome.
- Recognize child’s needs and respond sensitively, without hostility, gain the child’s trust and respect, and make him feel secure.
- Make rules and instructions clear, e.g. instead of saying “Stop that noise!” tell him something he can do.
- Respond firmly and calmly to defiance and aggression.
- Help the child with his interpersonal skills.
- Deal with problems at school, for e.g. assessment and remedial education for learning disabilities.
- Steer the child away from deviant peers.
- Treat hyperactivity with medications, if present.
Psychologists say aggression is worst around the age of two. Attachment, or bonding, enables the child to control his aggression as he begins to understand others’ feelings. The part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex is involved in this process.
If the way we bond with our children when they are little can cause changes in their brains that can affect the rest of their lives, shouldn’t we be a lot more careful? Shouldn’t we as a society be using television channels that are watched by the maximum number of people to propagate the fact that children are quite plastic, literally putty in our hands? That we should be aware of the effects our actions have on them?
We know as little of the intricacies of the human brain as we do of the workings of galaxies in the universe. How homeostasis is maintained is mind-boggling; every hormone level, blood cell count, electrolyte has to be within a narrow range. Any change in one has far-reaching effects on multiple systems.
So just imagine the kind of damage a birth complication that cuts off oxygen for a few seconds can cause to the brain. Since every part of the brain controls some function, the damaged part is going to produce some ‘symptom’ in the form of a ‘behavior’ as the child grows. Lack of control over aggressive impulses leading to juvenile delinquency could be one, so more effort has to go into teaching the child how to deal with aggression.
This is the responsibility of all the significant adults in his life, and of society as a whole.