Understanding Adolescent Brains and Training to Keep Kids Safe

Understanding Adolescent Brains and Training to Keep Kids Safe


No police officer ever wants to be involved in a call where a child gets hurt. And yet, over the last 6 years, at least 111 children have been killed by police in the U.S according to the Washington Post. Just this year, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was killed by an officer on March 29 in Chicago, and 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was killed by an officer on April 20 in Columbus, Ohio. Toledo had a gun shortly before he was shot, and Bryant was holding a knife, but neither officer was in critical danger at the moment they pulled the trigger. In 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by an officer in Cleveland while he sat on a swing set, holding an Airsoft replica.

So how do these terrible mistakes continue to occur?


The answer is in the way our brain works. Our brain is built to protect us and keep us alive.

The brain stem or “lizard brain” controls the automatic functions, like breathing and blood pressure, and it controls the “reticular activating system,” the feature that scans our surroundings for anything that is a threat to our survival.

The limbic layer of the brain, unique to mammals, links emotions, cognition, and behavior. It records memories of experiences and creates our schema: our filing cabinet of background knowledge so that we know what threats to avoid and what rewards to pursue. Within the limbic layer, the thalamus takes the sensory information coming in from the reticular activating system and sends it to other parts of the brain for processing; the hippocampus houses the memory system; and the amygdala processes fear, reacting in less than a second to any hint of a perceived threat. The amygdala actually bypasses the thalamus (the brain communication hub) and sends distress signals directly to the lizard brain/brain stem with the stress hormone cortisol. Once cortisol is released, all other cognitive functions and problem-solving is gone, and we are left with fight or flight (or freeze).

The problem is that we have to be able to get past these emotional gatekeepers of the brainstem and the limbic system before we can process rational thought. The neocortex, the part of the brain that is home to executive function, manages planning, abstract thinking, self-regulation, and organization. If cortisol is released, causing the officer —and the suspect— to shift into fight or flight, no rational thinking can occur. The brain is only focused on survival, not problem-solving. When an officer feels threatened, whether the threat is imminent or fleeting, cortisol and adrenaline kick in, and survival mechanisms take over.

Unfortunately, when calls involve children, it’s even more dangerous for everyone involved. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), the amygdala (responsible for sending distress signals that trigger fight or flight) develops early as we age. However, the frontal cortex (controlling reasoning and critical thinking) develops later. The rational part of the brain is still developing in adolescence and young adulthood.


Adolescent brains literally work differently than adult brains. 

“Their actions are guided more by the emotional and reactive amygdala and less by the thoughtful, logical frontal cortex.”

Adolescents are more likely to be impulsive, misread social cues, get into accidents, engage in risky behavior, and put themselves in dangerous situations. They are less likely to think before they act and consider the consequences of their actions. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain. Teens process information with the amygdala, the emotional part. According to Stanford Children’s Health, “That’s why when teens have overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.”

Adam Toledo had been running from the police with a gun in his hand moments before he dropped it and was shot. Ma’Khia Bryant lunged with a knife towards an adult woman with whom she had been arguing. Tamir Rice was playing around with a toy gun, allegedly pointing it at people. All three adolescents were guided by their emotional amygdala instead of their not-yet-fully-developed prefrontal cortex.

Because adolescent brains are different than adult brains, police need to plan for encounters that might involve children. But police training experts have said they “know of no academies or programs that offer specialized training to officers in this area, as they do for other segments of society, such as the mentally ill.” Lawrence Miller, a clinical, forensic, and police psychologist said, “there is no national standard or set of protocols regarding how officers should handle encounters with children.”

Training in simulation, however, is available. MILO  has dozens of scenarios involving children in their catalog. Recently filmed scenarios with children include an adolescent with an Airsoft gun, wrong house entries with a child opening the door, adolescents as assailants, teens with weapons, and children calling 911 when their parents are fighting. Officers can train in simulation with armed and unarmed adolescents in these scenarios, and they can also work to de-escalate the teenage brain with MILO courseware developed in partnership with the NeuroLeadership Institute.

Understanding how our own brain reacts when it senses threat is one step on the path to fewer deadly police encounters with children. Understanding the teenage brain is another step. Training with MILO Range Training Systems in scenarios that purposefully involve children is a proactive step to keep our officers, our communities, and our children safe.