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Written By

Mykala Wright

College

College of Healthcare Sciences

Publish Date

18 November 2021

Building resilience and self-esteem

Youth crime is a serious issue and there is no simple solution. However, research into the underlying factors involved can lead to a breakthrough. JCU Master’s Student Belinda Astridge is aiming to provide new insights into how childhood experiences may help to inform our understanding of juvenile offenders.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are a range of negative, potentially traumatic events that a person may experience between the ages of 0-17. These include emotional, physical or sexual abuse, emotional or physical neglect, household substance abuse, household mental illness, violent treatment towards mother, having a household member incarcerated, or parental separation or divorce.

Belinda, who has years of experience as a mental health nurse specialising in forensic mental health, is delving into how resilience, attachment style and self-esteem impact the relationship between childhood adversity and juvenile delinquency.

Research has identified that exposure to ACEs is linked to an increased involvement in child protective services and the juvenile justice system,” she says. “So, we already know that these adverse experiences have an impact; what I think is not occurring is the screening for and addressing of these impacts. My research aims to understand if we can help address the effects of these experiences by building a young offender’s resilience or self-esteem.”

Understanding why someone with a troubled childhood is more likely to engage in unlawful behaviour as a minor is fundamental to developing effective intervention initiatives.

“If we can encourage screening for ACEs as soon as a young person is admitted into the youth justice system, interventions could be implemented earlier,” Belinda says. “Evidence based policies and programs could be initiated to enhance the resilience, self-esteem and attachment style of young people who are involved in, or directly at risk of becoming involved in, the youth justice system.”

ACEs and their impact

Exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences has a significant, lasting impact on a person’s life. ACEs have harmful repercussions on adult health and have been linked to an increased risk of mental illness, chronic health problems and substance abuse.

“If a person has four or more of these experiences in their childhood, their life expectancy is 20 years less than the general population,” Belinda says.

ACEs can also negatively affect a person’s life opportunities — such as education, employment and earning potential — and leave them increasingly vulnerable to prolonged stress. Consequently, they can alter brain development and impact things like attention span and decision-making.

“I’m quite interested in why people offend and what has happened in their life that’s led them to offend. In terms of ACEs, these can change a young person’s physiology, essentially making them more likely to take risks because they’re already in a heightened state,” Belinda says.

The more negative events a person experiences during childhood, the more detrimental the impact on their overall health and well-being. In terms of juvenile offenders, those exposed to multiple ACEs are at an increased risk to reoffend.

“It’s quite alarming, because some of these experiences are not uncommon. For example, a parental separation is something a lot of people go through,” Belinda says.

As part of her Master’s research, Belinda is currently looking into existing literature on the link between childhood adversity and recidivism in the youth offender population. Recidivism refers to a person’s relapse into offending after experiencing the negative consequences of their actions, such as arrest or imprisonment.

In the past, solutions have focused on identifying risk factors for juvenile offending in order to remove the young person from such risk. But often, this is not possible. For instance, we cannot stop a young person’s parents from separating or suffering from mental illness.

Belinda’s research on attachment style, resilience and self-esteem highlights the possibility of other avenues for achieving positive outcomes.

“I’ll be looking at things like the relationship between a young person’s attachment style and the types of offences they’re committing or if they’re choosing to reoffend,” she says.

“For example, a lot of young people coming through the criminal justice system are involved in child protective services and they may not have strong attachments to their family or community. In my field of work, I’ve seen kids form attachments with their peers, which perpetuates the problem because they end up offending together and that’s how they connect with one another.”

Changing the narrative

Belinda’s objective for this research is to gain a better understanding of juvenile offenders in order to implement interventions. In addition to that, she hopes it will improve community discourse surrounding young people and young offenders.

“The media attention on youth crime made me realise how important it was to reflect, look at and consider what’s actually going on for our kids in the North Queensland community. My research is in its early days, but I think this is such an important area that needs more attention, particularly in Australia and in some of our remote communities,” she says.

“There needs to be better long-term solutions for these kids than simply just locking them up.”

Youth crime is a complex and multifaceted issue, and Belinda hopes protective factors such as building resilience or self-esteem may minimise the impacts of risks caused by Adverse Childhood Experiences.

“I want to know how we can help this population. The kids that are in detention and involved with the youth justice system are not bad kids. Many have been exposed to trauma or rough experiences and we cannot paint them all with the same brush.”

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