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Teenage brain

By Jeff Terrill

Fort Wayne Reader


Kids don’t just say funny things. They do funny things. And some of those funny things can put kids in danger or on the wrong side of the law. Why is it that some kids find themselves in trouble?

One reason might be that the human brain undergoes massive reorganization between years 12 and 25. In his October 2011 National Geographic article entitled “Beautiful Brains,” David Dobbs explains some of the science behind the teenage brain. He convincingly suggests that those same thrill-seeking tendencies exhibited by teenagers are actually intended to help get them out of the house. Kids who take risks find themselves with new experiences and new opportunities.

Dobbs describes a child leaving the home as “the most difficult thing that humans do, as well as the most critical—not just for individuals but for a species that has shown an unmatched ability to master challenging new environments. In scientific terms, teenagers can be a pain in the ass. But they are quite possibly the most fully crucially adaptive human beings around. Without them, humanity might not have so readily spread across the globe.”

If Dobbs’ contention is correct, it’s no wonder that the juvenile and adult justice systems have such a high caseload. In Indiana, people charged with a crime in adult court must be at least 18 years of age. Juvenile court is for kids who are 17 years old or younger. There are a few exceptions, but we won’t worry about them here. In a nutshell, the juvenile justice system is geared toward the rehabilitation and treatment of the child. The adult system, on the other hand, is punitive in nature. Even though the human brain doesn’t fully develop before age 25, the adult courts see a lot of 18, 19 and 20 years olds who are accused of criminal wrongdoing.

I’ve had the good fortune to represent many teenagers over the years. I don’t know teenagers like parents of teenagers know them, but I believe the vast majority of them will go on to be successful in their adult lives. Maybe a troubled teen’s delinquent behaviors stem not just from defiance or disobedience. Fortunately, many judges, prosecutors, police officers and probation officers understand that good kids can make bad decisions.

Dobbs’ article provides additional perspective on teenage decision-making. According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2006 a teenager died in an automobile crash once every hour on weekends and once every two hours throughout the rest of the week. Over 8,000 kids aged 15 to 20 died in automobile accidents in the U.S. that same year. 31% of those who died had consumed alcoholic beverages and 77% were not wearing their seatbelts. Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of teenage deaths. In 2007, 3,174 young drivers were killed in automobile crashes. 67% of the passengers who also died in those crashes were in that same age group of 15 to 20 years of age.

What does this all mean? I’m not sure, but the good news is that traffic fatalities of teenagers have been declining each year. Teenage drivers are still taking risks at a higher rate than older drivers, however. Can we attribute that behavior to the growing brain? If studies are showing that 16 year old kids are motivated by thrill-seeking and impressing peers, should we be surprised that, for example, they aren’t always wearing their seat belts?

As parents, we want our kids to be happy and safe. We encourage them to try new things. My kids aren’t teenagers yet, but David Dobbs seems to know a few things about parenting teenagers. In his article, he observes: “Studies show that when parents engage and guide their teens with a light but steady hand, staying connected but allowing independence, their kids generally do much better in life.”

Wow. That independence thing must be tough for parents of teenagers.


Jeff Terrill is a partner/shareholder with the law firm of Arnold Terrill Anzini, P.C. Mr. Terrill represents clients accused of crimes throughout northeast Indiana. You can contact Mr. Terrill with any questions or comments at his office at 260.420.7777 or via email at jterrill@fortwaynedefense.com. Learn more about his firm at www.fortwaynedefense.com.

This article expressed opinions and observations of the author, is not intended as legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. Please consult a qualified attorney with any legal questions or issues you might have. Thank you.

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