Dr Malie Coyne: 'Prison cell can easily await if we don't understand and help troubled children'
After the judge delivered his sentence on the two teenagers convicted of murdering Ana Kriegel, we are left with a deeply uncomfortable question: What drives young teenagers to commit violent crimes like homicide on innocent victims? While teen murder is a rare phenomenon, it can and does happen... when dark vulnerabilities collide.
Most of us were deeply disturbed when hearing about the loss of such a vibrant young girl, and how she tragically came to her untimely death. Seeing photos of Ana smiling tugs at my heart, because as a parent I cannot imagine the earth- shattering sense of loss her family must feel. Their grief lives on forever.
On one hand, the public was drawn to finding out what happened, but on the other, many parents including myself found ourselves turning away from it because it was too painful and close to our own fears about our children's safety. Rather than seeing this as a 'them' and 'us' situation, could there be learning from unearthing what drives teens to commit homicidal crimes?
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Understanding what drives teens to kill may not be a priority for those who focus on punishment, or who feel that an attempt to understand may somehow excuse their actions. But violent teenagers do not spring up from nowhere. Inflicting horrific pain comes from experiencing horrific pain; and a deep lack of empathy comes from a deep lack of nurturance mixed with a toxic environment.
In decoding the criminal mind, FBI profiler Jim Clemente concluded: "Genetics loads the gun, their personality and psychology aim it, and their experiences pull the trigger".
What leads a child to kill is complex. While the trial heard that both boys came from loving and supportive families, in most cases, criminal behaviour is deeply rooted in the background and upbringing of the young person. We are some of everything we have lived, poignantly captured in this 'Ghosts from the Nursery' quote: "From the waters of the womb to the arms of the caregivers to the walls of the family home, when the shelters in which we harbour our children are inadequate or destructive, the final shelter our society provides will often be the cement walls of a prison cell."
Incredibly, 90pc of a child's brain pathways develop in the first three years of life. Rapid advances in neuroscience are showing us that, in addition to genetics, brain development is experience-dependent and that a secure child-parent relationship gives the child a "psychological immune system" for dealing with life challenges and growing resilience. On the other hand, exposure to early adversity and trauma affects the structure and function of children's developing brains and their future physical, social and emotional health outcomes.
In helping children to regulate their emotions, the quality of the care parents provide establishes healthy brain pathways, which enables them to do this for themselves in the future. Without this type of responsive care-giving, children grow up hyper-vigilant to threat, lack empathy, struggle to recover from stress and are more prone to aggressive outbursts and unhealthy self-soothing techniques (eg substance abuse).
Another factor to consider is the role of the internet and its impact on children. While the internet is full of rich information that teaches and entertains, it can also be full of dark things which expose young immature minds to a much more sinister world. This is particularly true for children whose early adversity and lack of nurturing has led to much lower self-esteem and negative self-beliefs.
Although most teens have the ability to separate fantasy and real life, this is especially difficult for vulnerable teens. Repeated exposure to violence through the internet, video games or television can lead them to becoming desensitised to such images, contributing to more aggressive behaviour. Furthermore, teens who struggle with mental health issues or experience learning difficulties can find it harder to separate fantasy from reality as they may find comfort in online fantasy worlds as an escape from normal life.
Apart from the first three years of life, a huge amount of brain growth and reorganisation happens during the teenage years. Changes in body chemistry linked to puberty result in riskier behaviours, with less capacity for reasoning and weighing up consequences. When teens are engrossed with fantasy on the internet, their emotions can take over, which can result in more impulsive aggressive and sexualised behaviours. This is particularly true when in the presence of their peers, where an increase in risky behaviours provides dopamine for their reward-seeking brains.
It can be useful to think of the teenage brain as having the "accelerator" on before the "braking" system has been completed.
I heard lately that "we over-parent our under-10-year-olds and we under-parent our over-10-year-olds". As a clinical psychologist and parent, I wonder is there some truth in it. If parents are always looking out for the hazards younger children face, do we drop the ball a bit once they begin to show some autonomy? If so, are we doing our teens a disservice?
If we are to learn anything from this horrifically tragic case, we might ask ourselves: Are we supporting teenagers by enabling their independence yet holding them close when they are in distress?; are we helping them navigate their high expectation world by embracing their efforts and not only their achievements?; have we set limits when it comes to internet and social media use?; are we discussing sexuality and consent?; are we helping them through their difficult emotions?; are we modelling what it means to show kindness to ourselves and others?
Apart from the responsibility of parents, caregivers and educators in helping teenagers to thrive, we need better ways of understanding and supporting troubled children within their communities which acknowledge the influence of excessive early adversity on their developing brains.
Rather than react when it's too late, beginning our interventions early will reap far richer rewards for children and society as a whole. And if you have your own teenager, do hug them tight tonight.
Dr Malie Coyne is a clinical psychologist and NUIG lecturer