Diagnosis: Adolescence, Not Otherwise Specified

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By Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D.
Chief Program Officer over Juvenile Law, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

Think back to your teenage years for a moment. Were you ever impulsive? Was it important to fit in? Did you make poor decisions? Did you ever do something that (if you had been caught) could have led to serious consequences? Don’t worry if you answered yes to any or all of these questions: you are not alone. For those working with teenagers, the good news is that we now know more than ever about why adolescents tend to have these characteristics or behaviors.

Both social and medical science have made great strides in furthering our understanding of the complex association between the adolescent brain and behavior, and what purposes are served by these oftentimes puzzling behaviors.

At this point, most practitioners and policy makers appreciate that the human brain does not finish developing until the early 20s when the prefrontal cortex completes maturation and executive functioning is refined. Until that time, young brains are susceptible to the influence of peers, making impulsive decisions and engaging in risky behavior.

Fewer people, however, are aware that this period of growth and sometimes perplexing behavior also serves an important evolutionary function: it assists young people in acquiring necessary skills to survive and thrive as an adult. In other words, the very behaviors that frustrate parents and other adults working with adolescents are critical to learning how to deal with adversity and positioning young people to successfully operate within a world that will largely be run by their peers.

This evolutionary perspective on human development helps remind us that much of adolescent behavior is adaptive, normal and essential for survival. As David Dobbs notes in his National Geographic article (October, 2011) on the topic: “[Natural] selection is hell on dysfunctional traits. If adolescence is essentially a collection of them – angst, idiocy, and haste; impulsiveness, selfishness, and reckless bumbling – then how did those traits survive selection? They couldn’t.”

Approaching adolescence from this strength-based and normative perspective furthers the position of many in the juvenile justice field that we need a different approach to handling delinquent behavior – particularly status offenses. A status offense is a behavior that is unlawful only if the individual committing it is below a certain age. Common examples include truancy, running away and possession of alcohol.

In essence, brain science, developmental science and evolutionary disciplines teach us that adolescence is not a period of deficits – but an intense period of maturation where a child is learning to become a fully functioning adult. Thus, many propose that since adolescence falls between childhood (no culpability) and adulthood (full culpability), it should be considered a period where there is partial culpability for actions.

This “adolescence as a mitigating factor” orientation in the justice system has been supported by several recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and acknowledges a parallel to those conditions under which adults might not be considered fully culpable for their behavior (e.g., reasonable other standard).

Ultimately, the task at hand for the field is to put into use what we know about human development and continue to aggressively pursue alternatives to harsh and unproductive responses to challenging adolescent behavior such as truancy, running away and violating curfews.

Fortunately, we now have resources that reflect cutting edge knowledge of the complexities of adolescent development, which are critical for moving forward juvenile justice reform. These include the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s recently released “National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses” and the Vera Institute of Justice’s soon-to-launch Status Offense Reform Center.

Informed by research on adolescent development, the National Standards outline key strategies for courts and allied systems to better handle relatively low-risk behaviors, and serve to remind us that adolescent behavior is not the same as delinquent behavior. Further, the Standards warn us that over-responding to non-delinquent or low-risk behavior often does little benefit, and it can actually unintentionally harm children and ultimately increase costs to society.

What the Standards and other modern evidence-informed policy and practice guidelines offer is a framework to modify our thinking about adolescents to a strength-based orientation and appreciation for this amazing period of development, and to craft humane and effective responses to children that touch our justice system. This is not to suggest that moving to a comprehensive system of juvenile justice informed by current knowledge of adolescent brain development will be an easy task or that adults should turn a blind eye to dangerous adolescent behavior.

Rather, understanding impulsiveness and risk taking from a broader and more contextual perspective does help us appreciate the adaptive nature of the youth with whom we work and avoid inadvertently damaging some of our most vulnerable yet creative, promising and deserving young citizens.

Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D., is the Chief Program Officer over Juvenile Law at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Dr. Marsh is a social psychologist with research and teaching interests in the areas of psychology and the law, adolescent development, trauma, and juvenile justice. He was also a Review Leader for the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s "National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses."


This op-ed has been reprinted with the permission of Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.