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August 21st, 2015

Sexual Abuse of Teens & Adolescents – Brain Development & Harm

There is a common misconception that teens and young adults who engage in “sexual relationships” do so voluntarily, or that adults who have sexual contact with teens aren’t as bad as those who target younger children. However, there are two important factors which underscore the fact that sexual abuse of teens and adolescents is a serious issue—one that deserves as much attention as sex abuse of young children.

Related: Sexual Assaults-Abuse by School Employees on School Field Trips [A discussion of school liability for sexual abuse on school trips.]

First, sexual predators often target teens and adolescents due to the fact that young adults are impressionable and easily manipulated. In addition, predators often ply victims with drugs and alcohol which affect decision making.

Second, the adolescent and teenage period is a critical time for brain development. Even though a teenager may look and seem like an adult, the teenage brain is undergoing major changes which affect decision making. In fact, teens are in a critical developmental period that has long lasting effects. Teenage decision making is heavily influenced by the limbic system of the brain, the emotional part of the brain, and not the rational part (prefrontal cortex).

There has been a growing body of research in the last few years regarding neuropsychology and brain development in adolescents and teens. Recent research has debunked the previously widely held belief that brain development was largely completed by puberty.

According to a 2010 article in the Journal of Adolescent Health, “The frontal lobes, home to key components of the neural circuitry underlying “executive functions” such as planning, working memory, and impulse control, are among the last areas of the brain to mature; they may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life.” See Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy.

These two factors explain why teenagers may “voluntarily” engage in sexual contact with adults. In addition, these factors should dispel misconceptions about sexual abuse of teenagers. Oftentimes, teens who engage in sexual contact with adults don’t realize the extent of the harm until well into adulthood, and the harm is often very real and long lasting. Drug abuse, alcohol abuse and criminal conduct are very common. In addition, adults who have experienced sexual abuse as teens or adolescents often suffer prolonged bouts of anxiety and depression years or even decades later.

For more information, please visit our sexual abuse law library where you can access dozens of legal articles, news releases, etc., by our civil sex abuse lawyers.

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