Essay on Social, Emotional, Psychological, Biological, and Behavioural Changes in Adolescence

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On an average night, during the June quarter 2018, 980 adolescents aged between 10-17 were in youth detention in Australia (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2018) posing a challenge to the criminal system which recognises the unique needs of adolescent offenders. A report by the Australian Law Reform Commission summarises some of these challenges by noting that adolescents “tend to have a reduced fear of danger and display 'acting out' behaviours. They may have volatile behavioural patterns and emotional states, self-harming behaviour, different perceptions of time and shorter concentration spans. They are also more vulnerable to contamination from criminal influences they encounter” (Australian Law Reform Commission, 1997). As a result, researchers have sought to understand the specific developmental patterns in behaviour and emotional characteristics of adolescents to assist with managing young offenders during a period of heightened vulnerability. In this assignment, we will assess the available evidence on the social, emotional, psychological, biological, and behavioural changes that occur during adolescence which may explain their increased vulnerability to specific problems and/or behaviour choices and determine whether adolescents should be held to the same degree of responsibility for their unlawful actions as adults. Finally, we will consider any distinctive cultural practices or cultural beliefs that may act as protective mechanisms for young people.

In Australia, the statutory minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10 years, with a presumption (known as doli incapax) deeming a child between the ages of 10 and 14 incapable of committing a criminal act. From 14 to 17 young offenders may be held fully responsible for their criminal acts but are subject to a different range of criminal sanctions than adults committing the same offences (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2005). This age range aligns with the biological processes of puberty which typically take place between 10-22 and can vary from culture to culture, usually occurring between 10-13 years (Early Adolescence) to about 18-22 years (Late Adolescence).

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During this period of Adolescence an individual experiences dramatic changes in anatomy, physiology, and physical appearance as they biologically prepared for sexual reproduction. These changes all begin with events that occur in the endocrine system during puberty which trigger hormonal and physical changes as well as dramatic changes in identity, self‐consciousness and cognitive flexibility (Blakemore & Choudhury, 2006, p296). Importantly, these changes in brain development and cognitive systems mature along different timelines throughout Adolescent creating a period of especially heightened vulnerability. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for performing of complicated tasks involving long-term planning, the regulation of emotion, impulse control, and the evaluation of risk and reward continues to develop well into late adolescence (Steinberg & Scott, 2003, p1013). This coupled with changes in early adolescent to the limbic system around puberty may stimulate adolescents to seek higher levels of novelty and to take more risks without the capacity to assess or consider the impact of their decisions and/or assess the risks of their actions. As Smith, Chein & Steinberg notes; “the cognitive mechanisms associated with deliberation follow a linear and protracted developmental trajectory that extends into adulthood, well beyond the most striking period in pubertal development, whereas the processes that underlie affective responding exhibit an inverted U-shaped pattern of developmental change that is most dramatic during the first part of adolescence” (p 236).

According to the Storm-and-Stress theory, Adolescence is a time when thoughts, feelings, and actions swinging between extremes ref. During Puberty adolescents are more emotionally volatile and experience more frequent mood swings with significant identity exploration which can produce Instability, feeling in-between and heightened Self-focus (Arnett, 2000, p471). Erikson refers to this developmental stage as a period of psychosocial crisis relating to identity versus identity confusion as an Adolescent explores their own personal traits, abilities, and interests and begin to assess various life possibilities.

During adolescence peers and friends replace immediate families as the emotional centre of young people’s lives and as time spent with friends increases, so does risky behaviour, including alcohol and other drug use, cigarette smoking, and delinquent behaviour (Brown, Bakken, Ameringer, & Mahon, 2008, p23) to the weakening of parental supervision and a desire to facilitate their affiliation with their peers (Smith et. al, 2013, p324). Steinberg (2008) refers to this increase in risk-taking as the brain’s socio-emotional system which seeks increased reward-seeking, especially in the presence of peers (p83), leading to an adolescence being more susceptible to influence, less future oriented, less risk averse, and less able to manage their impulses and behaviours (Steinberg& Scott, 2003, P1013). These are reflected in the 2015-2017 data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on the Leading underlying causes of death of Adolescence in Australia aged between 15-24. The top four causes of death are all related to the social, emotional, psychological and biological changes which occur during adolescence and increased risk seeking behaviour; suicide, car accidents, drug related deaths and assault (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2017).

Steinberg and Scott (2003) take this developmental perspective and ask the question about the criminal culpability of adolescent offenders. Their position is that adolescents should not be held to the same standards of criminal responsibility as adults, because “adolescent decision-making capacity is diminished, they are less able to resist coercive influence, and their character is still undergoing change” (p1009). They cite three major areas which reduce Criminal Culpability within the crime system and highlight specific example of how the developing adolescent meet each of these factors to justify more lenient sentencing; The first category includes endogenous impairments or deficiencies in the actor’s decision-making capacity, secondly when external circumstances faced by the person are so compelling that a reasonable person might have succumbed to the same pressure and thirdly, that the criminal act was out of character (Steinberg & Scott, 2003, p1011). All three of these legal requirements relate to the developing adolescent due to; their psychosocial immaturity and capacity for self-management, their susceptibility to peer influence and their ongoing development of personal identity, respectively.

It’s important to note, however, that Steinberg and Scott are advocating for the core principle of penal proportionality – “Proportionality holds that fair criminal punishment is measured not only by the amount of harm caused or threatened by the actor but also by his or her blameworthiness” (p 1010). That is, one of mitigating circumstances rather than simply providing excuses. Adolescents, owing to their developmental immaturity, “should be viewed as less culpable than a comparable adult offender, but not as an actor who is without any responsibility for the crime” (p1010).

Developmental research on cognitive and psychosocial functioning supports their position with evidence suggesting that areas of the brain responsible for processes of long-term planning, the regulation of emotion, impulse control, and the evaluation of risk and reward are still to developing during puberty (Spear, 2000, p421). Adolescent also experience changes in the limbic system prompting adolescents to seek higher levels of novelty and to take more risks (Dahl, 2001). At the same time, patterns of development in the prefrontal cortex, which is active during the performance of complicated tasks involving judgment and decision making indicate that these functions are underdeveloped well into late adolescence (Geidd et al., 1999, p861).

More recent, research has looked to explain Judgment and Decision Making in Adolescence within an integrated model focused on biological, psychological, and contextual factors. Albert and Steinberg (2011), highlight that we need to “Move beyond a relatively narrow focus on age differences in the rational processing of decision elements, the field has begun to grapple with the dynamic quality of adolescents’ subjective decision-making experience – their beliefs and values, intentions and intuitions, emotions and self-awareness” (p28). These, “dual-process models” describe the developmental mechanisms which attempt to explain risk-seeking behaviour in adolescence and consist of Analytical (cold) and Intuitive (hot) modes of thinking. An example of a dual processing theory is fuzzy trace theory, which claims that adolescents’ tendency to take risks come from their under-reliance on intuition, that’s is, “the adaptive tendency to rely on simple, categorical intuitions, derived from experience, to guide decision making” (Albert & Steinberg, 2011, p17). This ongoing development of heuristics increases the individual’s ability to predict and act within a reasoned way using analytical thinking promoting a growing wealth of intuitive knowledge about how the world works. Albert & Steinberg summaries that ‘In essence, as adolescents’ gain further experience navigating their social world, they begin to better understand their own behavioural tendencies and more accurately predict (and presumably control) their future decision making” (p17).

Whether we agree or disagree that Adolescents are less culpable than a comparable adult offender due to social, emotional, psychological, biological, and/or behavioural changes during puberty, we still need to consider the important question, how do we deal with sentencing a young offender for the offences they have committed. Paradoxically, the very drivers that see an Adolescent in the adult criminal system may be the very drivers that make them highly vulnerable to incarceration in adult facilities given the ongoing development of adolescent identity, incarceration can have a negative long-term effect on a young person's mental health (Domalanta, Risser, Roberts, & Risser, 2003, p482)

When we consider any cultural practices or cultural beliefs that may act as protective mechanisms for young people, we look at those factors which support adolescents to overcome these risks. The development of resilience during Adolescence against risk factors is supported by protective factors which include; The involvement of a caring Adult, whether this be a parent or an adult mentor (Piko & Kovacs, 2010, p55), a positive school environment and good/close friendships who discourage risk behaviour, as well as in supporting them emotionally and helping them cope with stressful life events and Religious beliefs and practices which have been shown to protect adolescence against substance abuse, even when they have grown up in a high-risk environment (Wallace et al., 2007).

The most successful programs which promote and strengthen Protective factors are multisystemic approaches (Borduin, Schaeffer, Ronis, 2003) which focus on several levels of intervention, including the home, the school, and the neighbourhood. These programs can include parent training, job training and career counselling, and the development of community institutions such as religious centres, sports centres groups, community events and engagement. Ultimately the goal is to provide a means to focus adolescent energy into more constructive and productive ways.

During Adolescence, young people experience dramatic changes physically as well as socially, emotionally and psychologically. As these changes are not linear, and mature along different timelines throughout Adolescent, it creates a period of especially heightened vulnerability due to a desire to seek higher levels of novelty without the capacity to assess or consider the impact of their decisions and/or assess the risks of their actions. Adolescence is a time when thoughts, feelings, and actions swinging between extremes and the individual becomes more emotionally volatile through intense identity explore. This can result in psychological Instability, feeling in-between and heightened Self-focus. During this time peers and friends replace immediate families as the emotional centre of young people’s lives and time spent away from Adult supervision sees an increase in risk behaviours including alcohol and other drug use, cigarette smoking, and delinquent behaviour. This is reflected in the top four causes of death from 2014-17 all related to the social, emotional, psychological and biological changes which occur during adolescence and increased risk seeking behaviour.

Steinberg and Scott (2003) take this into consideration and ask the question about the criminal culpability of adolescent offenders. Their position is that adolescents should not be held to the same standards of criminal responsibility as adults, because adolescent decision-making capacity is diminished. Developmental research on cognitive and psychosocial functioning supports their position with evidence suggesting that areas of the brain responsible for processes of long-term planning, the regulation of emotion, impulse control, and the evaluation of risk and reward are still to developing during puberty. Other research such as, “dual-process models” suggests that adolesce are still developing the heuristic knowledge of the world and lack the ability to predict and act within a reasoned way.

Key protective mechanisms for young people is to develop resilience during Adolescence against risk factors by promoting protective factors such as a healthy family environment , a positive school environment and good/close friendships and the mean to be able to proactive and or explore Religious beliefs. The most successful programs which promote and strengthen Protective factors are multisystemic approaches which focus on several levels of intervention to enable to adolescent to ficus there energy into more constructive and productive ways.

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Essay on Social, Emotional, Psychological, Biological, and Behavioural Changes in Adolescence. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 20, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/essay-on-social-emotional-psychological-biological-and-behavioural-changes-in-adolescence/
“Essay on Social, Emotional, Psychological, Biological, and Behavioural Changes in Adolescence.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/essay-on-social-emotional-psychological-biological-and-behavioural-changes-in-adolescence/
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Essay on Social, Emotional, Psychological, Biological, and Behavioural Changes in Adolescence [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 27 [cited 2024 Jun 20]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/essay-on-social-emotional-psychological-biological-and-behavioural-changes-in-adolescence/
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