According to the LA Times, two 12-year-old girls, from Wisconsin were recently charged as adults for attempting premeditated murder against another classmate as an attempt to gain the attention of ‘Slender Man.’
NBC News has also reported on an Ohio woman, who suffered minor injuries to her face, neck, and back. She blames the same fictional character for the attack by her 13-year-old daughter and believes that the incident in Wisconsin pushed her daughter over the edge.
These, however, are only some of the violent cases committed by young children. How prevalent is the issue of violent crimes and youth – and what causes children to behave in this manner?
Prevalence of Child Violence
Seeing horrific crimes committed by young children is alarming, but the amount of violent crime committed by kids is actually going down.
In 2010, according to the National Institute of Justice, 8% of all homicides committed in the US involved juvenile offenders. The amount of criminal homicide committed by children 13 and younger, however, has decreased significantly, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention: In 1997, there were 40 total cases in the US, but in 2011, there were only 19.
A report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International tells us that in 2005, there were at least 2,225 child offenders serving life without parole sentences in the US for crimes committed before they were 18.
16% of these offenders, who are serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, committed their crime between the ages of 13 and 15 years old.
What Makes Kids Commit Violent Crimes?
Take a look at the adolescent brain. The frontal lobes – the part of the brain that is important in executive functioning, decision making and controlling impulses – and their connections to other parts of the brain don’t mature until around the age of 25.
Doctor Keiichiro Susuki’s research shows that a lack of myelin, which helps signals flow freely and efficiently, means the neural connections between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain move much more slowly in undeveloped brains.
What this means is that children and adolescents are less mature, more prone to outside pressures, and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. Their reasoning and judgement, likewise, are still developing, even well into the early and mid 20s. This does not mean that they can’t make rational decisions or know the difference between right and wrong, but means that when they are in stressful situations, they tend to act more impulsively without really understanding the consequences.
In addition to these decision-making connections, the teen brain has underdeveloped emotional connections. Sara Johnson, Director of General Academic Pediatrics Fellowship, believes that while the connections from the amygdala, the part of the brain that’s involved in emotional processing, and parts of the frontal lobes become denser during adolescence, it still continues to mature well into adulthood.
This lack of connection, referred to as emotional maturity, shows why some children can not process emotions and seem remorseless. According to Louis Kraus, a forensic psychiatrist of the Rush Medical Center in Chicago, in The Crime Report, since the part of the human brain that controls emotion does not fully develop until people reach their early 20s, showing no remorse can be an indicator of immaturity.
According to a study done by Dr. Ronald Dahl, Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, even at the ages of 16 and 17, teenagers, when compared to adults, are more impulsive, aggressive, emotionally volatile, likely to take risks, and likely to overlook alternative courses of action. Violence towards others also tends to peak in adolescent years.
Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff’s study also indicates that infants’ brains grow and develop as they interact with the environment. They learn how to function as their needs are met. Infants who do not get responses to their needs or who get abused learn different lessons. The brain’s development can be altered by severe stresses, resulting in a negative impact on the child’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social growth. Children who have endured these situations as infants often have a underdeveloped cortex, which can lead to increase impulsive behavior, difficulties with tasks that require higher level thinking and feeling. They are also more drawn to taking risks.
Children Act Impulsively: Consequences, Emotions, and Maturity
Based on the statistics and studies, it is clear that children tend to act impulsively, whether it is something small, like acting out in class, or big, like committing a crime. These children do not always think about the consequences their actions can have and can even be unable to process their emotions from the consequences of their actions.
Is it right to give children who commit violent offenses a life sentence in jail, when their brains are not yet fully mature?