The human brain is said to fully develop sometime between our mid-twenties and 30 years of age. As with most things, brain maturity varies with individuals. I can hear some of you laughing about your Uncle No Good or Aunt Dim Light, who are well past 30 and stuck in the wash cycle of life.
To be clear, the brain can reach maturity and the person holding the brain may not exhibit any signs of emotional, intellectual and/or social maturity.
Humans reach sexual maturity somewhere between 10-14, meaning they can reproduce their species. Again, to be clear, a teenage girl’s body may not be physically ready to deliver a baby, but she can get pregnant.
The age of consent, meaning a child can agree to sexual contact, is 16 years of age in our state. Unlike our physiological and biological clock, being able at 16 is a legal definition and has little to do with the capacity of the human brain to make good decisions.
Something called the prefrontal lobe in the brain is still working out its size, synapses and functional abilities. The skills of complex planning, logical thinking and impulse control are significantly developed during adolescent years, but as anyone who’s been around a 15-year-old for more than 10 minutes knows, the skills wander in and out. Throw in a few thousand hormones circulating into the mix and, well, teenagers can be, at best, unpredictable.
Most of all the above has been true for thousands of years with the exceptions of indications that the age of sexual maturity of girls is getting younger and who knows what the legal age of consent was in olden days.
What does change over time is the cultural underpinnings that provide cover to the immature decision making. Some parents fear the erosion of values and morality that came with these built-in restraints.
Some blame the women’s movement that rose in the 1960s and 1970s to demand equal rights to education, professions and careers and, along with it, freedom of choice about when to get pregnant.
Perhaps, the biggest influence on today’s teenagers is their untethered access to information through the Internet. There is no question that cannot be answered through the Internet. They may not be good or right answers, but there are answers. Despite best efforts on the part of system blocking and parents, teens can get fingertip access to images and stories that depict misleading, false and/or unnatural sexual intimacy.
Social media has exponentially increased peer pressure from the day when the rejection consisted of not being asked to the dance or being snubbed in the hallways of school to the daily strain of having likes, not likes or no likes on your postings.
Some postings by peers are meant to spread rumors about another, some of those being claims about their peer’s sexuality. Those rumors are far more widespread than the times of no social media and, as has been reported, have led to teen suicides.
Remember, this is all going into a yet to be developed brain judgment system and an environment of unsettled hormones. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that children as young as 11 must decide whether to send their nude picture to an older student or more children than we want to believe, admit to feelings of depression and despair.
‘Keep Our Kids Safe’ event coming near you
None of this has simple answers. The fact is, due to the rapidity of change, that even young parents today are watching their children grow up in an environment that is unfamiliar to them.
The other truth is that our society doesn’t easily talk about sex which unfortunately enables sexual predators. The wind of cultural change is in the air and it’s our job to remember the children first.
What doesn’t change is a parent or an adult responsible for a child’s well-being must keep up and stay ahead to provide the guidance and understanding even as they loosen the reins to allow their child to turn into an adult.
Sometimes, parents are surprised by what their children tell them and it’s so sophisticated and thought to be beyond their years – aren’t sure what to say in response. Knowing the response can be especially difficult with a teen who simultaneously requires independence and limits.
We want our children to be the best they can be and that includes having expectations of healthy, responsible sexual intimacy. We want them to know the difference between curiosity and exploitation, experimentation and criminal behavior. We want them to feel the power of their own choices.
Thursday, Feb. 22 beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the Sequim High School Auditorium, a program is being held to begin the conversation about our kids in our community and to increase our awareness of what we can do to prevent or intervene early in sexual misconduct, especially that leading to exploitation and assault.
Every interested parent and person, including adolescents, 13 or older, are invited to join the conversation to prevent girls and boys from becoming victims and girls and boys from becoming predators.
Those who attend will learn from a panel about the way some youth in our county see their lives, about the prevalence and experiences of sexual misconduct, and when it becomes a crime.
Those who attend will hear about the consequences of being a victim of sexual abuse whether by an adult or a peer and about the sensitive handling of victims by law enforcement.
Once we are armed with a desire to change the culture of silence and with new information, the audience will have a chance to speak and begin a path forward.
Hope to see you Feb. 22. We are fortunate to be in Sequim’s High School Auditorium – thank you Sequim School District for your endorsement of our program. There should be plenty of seating. Come at 6:15 p.m. We are starting promptly at 6:30 p.m.
Bertha D. Cooper, co-founder with Shenna Younger of “The Beginning,” will moderate the program and panel appearing at Keeping Our Kids Safe on Feb. 22, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Sequim High School Auditorium. Cooper spent her career years as a health care organizational and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette.