Prisoner of a Teen Brain

From Lorraine Segal’s Conflict Remedy Blog

Is it right to lock up teens forever when their brains are still developing?

I read in the newspaper a few days ago that the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled to uphold a life sentence without parole to a teen, Omer Ninham, who murdered a 13 year old when he was 14.

In their 5-2 decision they said that the attorney had ”failed to show that children 14 and younger deserve different constitutional status in homicide cases.” The ACLU, International Human Rights groups and the Equal Justice Initiative disagree.

Ninham’s attorney, Byron Stevenson, said,””Children are different than adults. Even when children commit very serious crimes, like the crime in this case, we have to think about their crime differently.”

From my understanding of teens and teen brain development, I absolutely agree.

The Teen Brain is a work in progress.

Scientists using modern non invasive imaging technology now know a lot more about the teen brain. Especially when children first become teenagers, their brains are reorganizing and changing more than they have since they were 18 months old. And their brains are very different from those of adults.

The back of the brain develops first.

Areas at the back of the brain, including the cerebellum, related to physical activity, and the amygdala, which the center of emotion, mature before the centers at the front. As a consequence of this incomplete development, teens process emotions and information differently than either children or adults.

Teen emotions overwhelm logic and clear decisions.

Teens primarily use the amygdala and emotion to process information, instead of the prefrontal cortex, center of logic, reasoning, and impulse control, which adults use. And, they misinterpret the reactions and emotions of others. This helps explain their different response to situations as well as their rapid emotional shifts.

Their emotions drive decision making as well. Their ability to make rational decisions and control their impulses doesn’t fully develop until they are about 25. When teens also use drugs or alcohol, as Ninham did, it further “hijacks the brain and it’s development,” according to Dr. Ken Winters, a teen development expert.

Teens can’t explain their bad behavior.

While I haven’t worked with any teens who murdered someone, I have worked as a mediator and communication workshop leader with a number of teens, some girls and many boys, who were in trouble and embroiled with the juvenile justice system. When in victim/offender mediations, I have asked the teen, “Why did you throw that trash can through the classroom window?” Or “Why did you steal those clothes from the store when you had money to purchase them?” Or “Why did you set that car on fire?”, they almost always say, “I don’t know.”

And they truly don’t know, because logic and reasoning had no part in their actions.

A lot of these teens in trouble are clearly good kids who made a big mistake because they lack the adult frontal cortex development to stop in the moment, to control the impulse, to think through consequences.

Teens are shocked by what they did and willing to change.

Teens often feel as bewildered as their parents and other adults at what happened. They are genuinely remorseful, particularly as they begin to understand the impact of their actions on others and on their own future.

In my experience, when they are given the opportunity to make amends, make restitution, and become contributing members of their communities instead of being the problem, they have tremendous willingness to do so.

Clearly teens, like all of us, must be acountable for their behavior. Murder is a horrible crime which calls for serious consequences. But teens are still very much learning how to be adults, and their brains are changing and maturing. I believe that to lock them up forever when they are still such confused and tender works in progress, is just plain wrong for them and for us.

Lorraine Segal is a conflict coach, trainer, and mediator specializing in transforming communication for parents, teens, and others. Her business, Conflict Remedy, is based in Santa Rosa, California. She teaches in the conflict resolution program at Sonoma State University. She provides conflict coaching and mediation by telephone as well as face to face. Contact her to find out about workshops, small coaching groups or to schedule a free initial telephone session. You can reach her at (707) 236-8079, or this blog. Next class at SSU, Communicating with Teens starts July 30. See classes page for more information.

Some information for this post came from:

Wisconsin Court Oks life sentence for teen (article)

Dr. Ken Winters–A Parent’s Guide to the Teen Brain (video)

Inside the Teenage Brain–Sheryl Feinstein (book)


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (, happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE >

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