The brain matures through three decades and its development is conditioned by social underpinnings.
Aggression is the use of physical or symbolic behaviour carried out with the intention of harming. It can range from behaviours for self-defence to the violation of the rights of others. Aggression has evolutionary origins, from our needs for survival and territorial dominance. Any breach of physical or psychological territorial boundaries can trigger aggression to quell the violation.
In so much as carefully devised aggression serves to ebb inter-personal conflict, it also serves a homoeostatic function to keep modern man contented in his and with his. However, aggression with a clear violation of individual or community rights deepens territorial divides, disrupting peaceful cohabitation. The unlawful, coercive use of aggression is a problem. A critical element of human development is the judgmental ability to use this protective mechanism appropriately.
We learn to exercise control over our evolutionarily determined and developmentally primitive aggressive impulses and use mature, less aggressive means. The most recently developed part of the human brain, the prefrontal cortex, is a key regulatory centre in the brain. It moderates emotional, limbic (including aggressive) drives from lower centres in the brain and plays a crucial role in our judgmental abilities.
Studies tracking brain development from early childhood to adulthood have demonstrated that while adult brain size is reached by about late childhood, maturation, especially in the prefrontal cortex, continues into the mid-20s.
Throughout the developmental lifespan that extends into the third decade of life, alongside maturation of physical characteristics and intellectual abilities, social, emotional, and moral competencies also undergo developmental changes.
To understand these developmental changes one must only reflect upon one’s own life. All of us remember that at some point in our lives social norms started making sense. After the innocence of childhood and the rebellion of adolescence, we begin to appreciate and preserve social etiquette as an integral part of our daily lives that depend heavily on social contact.
This is not to say that young children and adolescents do not observe social norms, but that it transforms from emerging more out of compulsion, to arising more out of wilful understanding. We also learn to differentiate the limits of liberty in personal choice and its interplay with social norms.
Socio-emotional and moral competencies are not predetermined at birth by genetic design or environmental predisposition. While we are born with innate capacities to express distress, to respond positively to a smiling face and to be affected by another’s suffering, we learn over time how to regulate our responsiveness to make it effectively goal-oriented.
Mary Rothbart and her colleagues at the University of Oregon coined the term effortful control for the ability to manage one’s reactivity, i.e., the moderation, regulation and effective expression of our innate response patterns. Effortful control encompasses the use of cognitive abilities and socio-emotional abilities. Cognitive abilities refer to our capacities to learn and problem solve; social abilities call into play cognitive capacities within a social context; emotional abilities refer to our capacities of experiencing, expressing, and regulating overwhelming feeling states. Therefore, effortful control is vital in determining what we do in our day-to-day lives and how effectively we do it.
Effortful control develops over childhood and adolescence and keeps getting refined throughout life as we learn more and more from our experiences, the experiences of others and the different environments we come to belong to.
As we develop as thinking, feeling, social beings, we also learn and imbibe value systems and moral norms that determine who we are.
These guide our judgments in personal, social and emotional situations. To take an example, one may want to help a friend in need. Whether one decides to help or to just sympathise and leave depends on one’s value systems about friendship, as well as one’s predicaments at that point in time. So to say, our choices and actions are dynamic and determined by multitude factors.
Children and adolescents can at times be surprisingly clever at making moral judgments about right and wrong and at distinguishing reasons underlying people’s choices.
It is important, however, to recognise that the models they see around them influence children’s reaction patterns and choices. A child raised in a family where parents frequently engage in charitable endeavours may be eager to share and give to peers at school; on the other hand, parents who struggle to make ends meet might be possessive of their belongings in order to ensure that there is enough for the family, and here a child may not be as ready to give.
It is not that great charities cannot or do not emerge from poverty, be it of money, or opportunity. However, the idea here is that social models and environments determine profoundly what children and adolescents have the opportunity to imbibe.
Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist, conceptualised a zone of proximal development for every child. This zone is bounded on the one side by a child’s independent learning, and on the other hand by the potential a child can reach with the support of a capable instructor, typically an adult.
The above illustrated evolutionary and developmental underpinnings also have a say in the context of children and adolescents in conflict with the law. Mental health professionals often get referrals from the legal system to evaluate the mental health and the capacity of a child to determine culpability.
We commonly find developmental and environmental vulnerabilities in such children. Poverty, poor monitoring by parents, life-skills deficits, school dropout, parental mental illness, and deviant older peer group frequently mpact these young lives. There appears to be a psychosocial causality to their alleged involvement in a crime.
Children’s vulnerabilities tend to respond to love or fear from persons in a position of authority, and their developing selves may not lend them the convictions needed to keep out of nefarious engagement. From this developmental vulnerability lens, how does one then ascribe culpability to a young person? If I fall because the floor is weak, my legs are not responsible! Strengthen the floor or teach me to fly and I will not fall again!
(The author is Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru)