As American society has become increasingly aware of the plight of sex trafficked American children, attention has shifted from delinquency to victimhood (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2010) with a corresponding awareness of the trauma that victims endure. This reconceptualization is incomplete without a larger understanding of the developmental vulnerabilities that leave children uniquely susceptible to recruitment and exploitation. Since the average age of entry into the commercial sex trade within the United States is 12-14 (Estes & Weiner, 2001), an exploration of the particular vulnerabilities of young teenagers--separation from parents; the process of identity formation; yearning for love and attention; susceptibility to peer pressure; cognitive and neurological changes; etc.—is essential to understanding the current epidemic of sex trafficking of minors. This article will not only elucidate these developmental liabilities and the corresponding increased risk for psychological distress among adolescents but it will also reveal the unique developmental advantages that facilitate growth and healing among adolescents. Such knowledge will explain why early adolescents are targeted and will consider how society can combat trafficking through reduction of risk factors, prevention and intervention programs, political action, and an appreciation of teenagers’ strengths.

Key Take Away Points

1. Developmental issues, including separation from parents, the process of identity formation, the desire for love and attention, increased susceptibility to peer pressure, and cognitive and neurological maturation, place adolescents at increased risk for recruitment into the life of sex trafficking.

2. Due to the increased risk for psychological distress among adolescents, early adolescents are both easier to recruit and harder to extricate from the life of trafficking.

3. Adolescents have considerable emotional, cognitive, and social strengths that should be enhanced and harnessed.

4. Pimps/traffickers employ a developmental perspective to ensnare these young and impressionable children.

Author Biography

Hadar S. Schwartz, MA is a doctoral candidate in CUNY Graduate Center’s Subprogram in Clinical Psychology. Her research focuses on the psychological effects of sex trafficking and maltreatment on the lives of children and adolescents.


I am immensely grateful to Dr. Denise Hien for her assistance and guidance with this manuscript and throughout my training.