By Norbert Ralph, PhD, MPH, private practice, San Leandro, CA.
As a clinician working with juveniles who sexually offended (JwSO) I find that these youth are frequently described as "lying and manipulative" which is presumed to be part of the pattern of behaviors that led to sustained criminal charges. Such behaviors might include things like denying or minimizing harmful behaviors and the effects on victims, for example. A developmental perspective can be useful to understand these behaviors from the youth's point of view, and importantly also adult reactions to them, and the interaction between the two. It can help in developing strategies and interventions to avoid future harmful behaviors and develop prosocial behavioral patterns in the youth.
The ethical and moral framework of professionals involved with juvenile justice youth is an important factor in the probation process. Sexual violence, whether by adults or juveniles, is among the most serious crimes, a cultural taboo, and significant harm is often done to victims. Societal and personal ethical reactions to sexual crimes by juveniles often becomes part of the legal and probation process and evoke strong negative emotional reactions. This moral view of juvenile transgressions may also resonate with the psychiatric categorization of juvenile delinquency. For example, DSM 5 criteria for Conduct disorder includes, "Often lies to obtain goods or favors or to avoid obligations (i.e., “cons” others)" (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Evidence-based models contrast with these personal moral attitudes regarding sexual crimes. For example, the How I Think Questionnaire (Barriga, Gibbs, Potter, & Liau, 2001) assesses offense-related thinking patterns based in part on Kohlberg's theory of moral development. For example, the instrument has scales which assess developmental immaturity and egocentricity, sometimes described as thinking errors, such as Lying, Self-Centered, Blaming Others, and Minimizing/Mislabeling. These thought patterns are viewed as part of developmental immaturity using Kohlberg's framework for moral development and not fixed and presumably untreatable traits.
A complementary model is Hy and Loevinger's (1996) work on ego development which provides an evidence-based theory of psychosocial development throughout the lifespan. Adolescence is a period of rapid psychosocial development. Most older teens and young adults score at the I-4 or Conformist level which reflects an internalized sense of socially appropriate behavior, rules, and laws. The next lower level, the I-3 Self-Protective level is most prevalent in pre- and early adolescence, from age 10 to age 13. In one study of JwSO, 92.5% were either classified at the I-2 Impulsive or I-3 Self-Protective (relatively lower levels of ego functioning), compared to 43% of a non-clinical 14-year-old sample (Ralph, 2017a). Similar to Europeans in the Middle Ages who viewed the Earth as the center of the universe, youth at the I-2 or I-3 level view their own needs and goals as paramount, and don't have a differentiated model of external rules, laws, and rights of others that facilitate prosocial and "win-win" interactions as might be present in higher developmental levels found more frequently in adults. For these youth, rules, or facts (e.g., you missed your appointment) that get in the way of things the youth wants to do, are seen as something to deny or avoid, unfair so they can be ignored, not true, wrong, mistaken, etc., rather than youth at a higher level than see "facts are facts" and "rules are rules", and like it or not, they are just there.
Ralph (2017b) describes factors and treatment methods that promote psychosocial maturity for the general juvenile probation population, and specifically for JwSO. These interventions view deficits in prosocial reasoning as a modifiable risk factor for delinquent and harmful behaviors that are treatable. These methods help the youth "up their game" to use more effective and mature methods of social-emotional reasoning about the choices they make. Complementary literature described in Ralph (2019) reports that incarcerated youth who psychosocially mature in detention have improved the frequency and severity of recidivism. More psychosocially mature youth have more sophisticated internal models or paradigms of "how the world works" and can do the "cost-benefit" analysis to avoid future problems. For example, Ezinga, Weerman, Westenberg, and Bijleveld (2008) in a community sample found more delinquent behaviors in youth at the I-2 or I-3 level in contrast to higher levels.
A developmental perspective on harmful behaviors by youth may help explain adults’ reactions to JwSO. Adults who are at the I-4 Conformist level, higher than the I-2 and I-3 levels have an internalized sense of rules, laws, and expectations, different from one's own wishes. People are either "good" and moral, or "bad" and immoral. The assumption of adults in this stage is that teenagers involved in harmful behavior know right from wrong and are deciding to be "bad" because they think they might get away with it. In my experience, this perspective often dictates that the most effective approach with youth with moral immaturities include verbal criticisms and severe sanctions. Such measures, while in some circumstances appropriate, if over-utilized may further traumatize youth where trauma itself had been a factor in offending, and also there is evidence that "get tough" approaches are not effective (Lipsey, 2009). This "get tough" view of JwSO and appropriate interventions may "bump up" against a developmental perspective. This disparity in perspectives may account for conflicts regarding disposition planning advocated by treatment providers on the one hand, and judges, probation officers, and district attorneys on the other.
In summary, risk factors, and treatment interventions for JwSO optimally should include developmental considerations, among other approaches. It is useful not only in designing more effective treatments and disposition planning for JwSO, but also in every day clinical work with these youth and consultation with the probation and legal system. In real-life clinical work these behaviors when can provide a useful framework for considering therapeutic "next steps" for youth in therapy and treatment planning.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Publisher.
Barriga, A.Q., Gibbs, J.C., Potter, G.B., & Liau, A.K. (2001). How I Think (HIT) Questionnaire manual. Champaign, IL: Re-search Press.
Ezinga, M. A. J., Weerman, F. M., Westenberg, P. M. and Bijleveld, C. C. J. H.(2008). Early adolescence and delinquency: Levels of psychosocial development and self-control as an explanation of misbehavior and delinquency. Psychology, Crime & Law,14(4), 339-356.
Lipsey, M. W. (2009). The primary factors that characterize effective interventions with juvenile offenders: A meta-analytic overview. Victims and Offenders, 4, 124-147.
Ralph N. (2017a). Moral Reasoning in Juveniles Who Sexually Offend. ATSA Forum, XXIX(2).
Ralph N. (2017b). Prosocial Treatment Methods for Juveniles Who Sexually Offended. ATSA Forum, 2017, XXIX(3).
Ralph N. (2019). Neuropsychological and Developmental Factors in Juvenile Transfer Hearings: Prosocial Perspectives. Journal of Juvenile Law & Policy, 23(1), 1-24.