The Development of Cognitive and Emotional Maturity in Adolescents and its Relevance in Judicial Contexts

From Judge Wayne Gorman: The Scottish Sentencing Council has released a report entitled: The Development of Cognitive and Emotional Maturity in Adolescents and its Relevance in Judicial Contexts.

The Council provided the following “executive summary”:

This report provides a synthesis and evaluation of the current neurobiological, neuropsychological and psychological literature on adolescent cognitive maturation. Using an ‘umbrella review’ methodology, systematic reviews, meta-analyses, and narrative reviews were collated, critically assessed, and then synthesized to provide robust findings and interpretations of the data as it applies to cognitive maturation and juvenile sentencing.

During adolescence and within normal individual development, an imbalanced growth pattern is observed between the brain regions governing emotion and mood, like the amygdala, and those involved in executive functions (those that provide the cognitive abilities which are necessary for prosocial behaviour, successful goal planning and achievement), like the prefrontal cortex. Converging findings suggest that this latter brain region is the last to reach maturity, leaving adolescents with immature and compromised core cognitive abilities for much of this developmental period. This immaturity, when coupled with the increased motivation to achieve rewards observed to coincide with puberty, is thought to be the most likely underlying mechanism contributing to the poor problem solving, poor information processing, poor decision making and risk-taking behaviours often considered to typify adolescence. Evidence suggests that the influence, or presence, of peers further exacerbates these tendencies.

In addition to these normative trajectories of adolescent neurocognitive development, cognitive maturation may be hindered or compromised by several factors including traumatic brain injury, alcohol and substance use, psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders and adverse childhood experiences, all of which have the potential to inhibit and disrupt typical development. Notably, adolescent cognitive maturation varies between individuals, and will not be the same for every individual, particularly when impacted upon by the environmental factors listed. Thus, the nature of adolescent cognitive development is not a process that allows us to specify an exact age at which cognitive maturity is definitively reached at an individual level. While we do not therefore recommend the use of stringent age ranges in sentencing guidelines, it is however recommended that the brain’s continued growth, until as late as 25-30 years of age, and the resulting cognitive immaturity, is considered during judicial processes involving adolescents and young people.

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