Teenagers and crime

Clipping from the Times of India, dated 15th March, 2013.
Clipping from the Times of India, dated 15th March, 2013.

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.

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8 thoughts on “Teenagers and crime

  1. V. interesting read; couple of points to clarify:

    1) At what point can adults/teachers find out if the kid is on road to delinquency? Is that possible at all or are the symptoms discovered post the crime?

    2) Wouldn’t exercises in self awareness from a young age – in the form of yoga, meditation, mindfulness, theatre workshops etc. be taught to children – so that it helps the child in developing better bonds and control aggressive tendencies?

    3) Lastly, you mention TV. I think in today’s context, that is probably one of the worst exposure we can give to children, I think even well educated, behaved children pick up vocab and tendencies watching current TV shows. I read somewhere that more than 2 hours in front of TV actually causes violent tendencies in children. Wouldn’t more physical exercises help such kids?

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    1. I’ll take #3 first: I mentioned TV as a medium for the government to use, you know, like the ad campaign that is currently being done to focus on the adverse effects of smoking.

      #2) It is the best thing that we could do for kids. But the challenge is huge, given what children are absorbing daily, esp via TV. In some ways the commercial breaks seem worse for children’s minds than the TV programs – they tell them what they need to buy to feel good about themselves. But you’re right, we need to find ways to make them look inwards.

      #1) Between kindergarten (or even before) and 3rd or 4th grade you sense something different about the child – in his look, attitude to authority and towards other children, unusual sort of tantrums, attitude to school – there are many very small signs even before more obvious behaviors like lying, stealing, truancy, etc. appear. There could be hyperactivity, lack of attention, difficulty with reading, writing, spelling – it’s more a sense of “this kid is odd”, rather than a checklist of ‘symptoms’.

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  2. I’ve always wondered if the kids who get in trouble as soon as preschool are the ones who turn into delinquents later on, or there’s no indication at that age. There’s one kid in particular I can think of in my kid’s class, who gets in trouble every single day. He knows what he does is wrong, he knows the consequences, but he still does it. Every day. I would feel sorry for his mom but she looks a little clueless at the problem standing in front of her and she makes light of most of her son’s behavior issues. A little scary.

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    1. There are subtle indications even when they are 4-5 years old. These, I think, are the ones born with subtle neurological defects. A lot of patience is required to find their strengths and use them in their favor.

      There’s another kind, where delinquency is a result of wrong handling by us adults. Consider a child who is dyslexic, but expected to do well academically (as his condition is not recognized). He is punished when he doesn’t do well, and labelled ‘lazy’. If this goes on for years, he may join a delinquent gang of kids who are similar misfits. Sometimes parents are so caught up in their own problems that they don’t notice their kids’ difficulties. It is scary when you sense that this kid is not okay but the mom seems oblivious, and you are not in a position to point it out. . .

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      1. Thanks, this is very helpful. I feel bad for the teacher because I can see she’s really trying but I have a feeling the mom is not consistent on her end and the kid is not worried about the consequences. Tough position.

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      2. Another blogger suggested it a few months ago after the school shooting in Connecticut, but when she said how sad it was, I decided to skip. Maybe I can try the movie.

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  3. I 100percent agree with you attachment or bonding helps to control the aggression as he begins to understand others feeling .This sentence explains everything what has to be done to a child who is aggressive

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