Cognitive Development In Adolescence: Why It’s Important To Know How Your Child’s Mind Works
Updated January 30, 2020
Reviewer Rashonda Douthit , LCSW
Seeing into the mind of an adolescent takes more than just remembering your own childhood. You also need to be willing to look beyond your experiences and learn from others who have studied children like yours. You may never know exactly what your child thinks or behaves the way they do. However, with some basic knowledge of cognitive development in adolescence, you can gain more insight into their thinking, see things from their perspective, and find ways to support them even more as they grow.
Cognitive Development in Adolescence
A child's brain develops dramatically during the adolescent years. Some brain regions get bigger, while others get smaller. The prefrontal cortex matures rapidly during adolescence, too, and these brain changes come with changes in cognition, which is another word for thinking.
Cognitive development refers to the changing thought processes that occur as we mature. It begins as soon as we're born (if not before) and continues into adulthood. Cognitive development in adolescence specifically brings about important changes that allow us to successfully transition from childhood to adulthood. In this section, we'll talk about the many different aspects of this development.
Stage of Formal Operations
Jean Piaget's work on cognitive development was an important breakthrough in psychology. Piaget used the term "Stage of Formal Operations" to describe the stage of adolescent cognitive development. In this stage, children gain the ability to think in abstractions and hypotheticals. They begin to use their imaginations in more practical ways. While young children may use their imaginations in play, adolescents use their imaginations to understand people and subjects more completely.
Unlike younger children, adolescents can learn to think abstractly. Here's an example of the difference:
A 5-year-old might learn to subtract by manipulating concrete objects. They may find two pencils on one side of their desk and six pencils on the other side of their desk. Then they may put them all in one pile and count them to find out that there are eight pencils in total.
On the other hand, an adolescent doesn't need to think of pencils or any other visual representation to know that 2 + 6 = 8. In fact, they can solve much more complex math problems without referring to physical objects of any kind.
Adolescents also develop the ability to imagine hypothetical situations. This might be a social situation, a subject they're learning about, or a challenge they're considering. They can imagine how it will go and make decisions about whether or how to approach the situation based on their abstract and hypothetical reasoning.
How Adolescents Process Information
The way we process information affects the types of knowledge we can acquire and how well we can work with it once we have it. During adolescence, young people begin to process information in the following ways:
- Their ability to reason deductively increases.
- They develop better decision-making skills.
- Their working memory capacity and ability to retrieve memories increases.
- They get better at choosing what to learn.
- Their ability to learn autonomously increases.
Knowledge Changes in Adolescence
A child's knowledge increases as they move into and through adolescence. However, this doesn't happen just because they've had longer to pile up more facts. Their ability to acquire new knowledge also increases. Some of the relevant changes you can expect in your child include:
- Increases in declarative knowledge: When you say, "I know that…," you're talking about declarative knowledge, which includes facts, concepts, and formulae.
- Increases in procedural knowledge: When you say, "I know how to…," you're talking about procedural knowledge. With this knowledge, adolescents can acquire new skills and techniques more easily than they might have when they were younger, although this is not always the case. For example, language learning is easier for a preschooler than a high school student.
- Increases in conceptual knowledge: Conceptual knowledge, the "I know why" type of knowledge, typically increases at a dramatic clip during adolescence. With their newfound ability to think abstractly, the "whys" of life become not only more understandable, but also more fascinating as well.
Seeing Multiple Parts of One Problem
As children go through adolescence, they gain the ability to see one problem from many different perspectives. They can even see diverse parts of the problem that may or may not be relevant to the decision at hand. Until they get used to seeing the complexity of life's problems, they can appear unfocused, but as they gain experience with seeing things this way, they become better problem-solvers.
Adolescents spend a lot of time thinking about themselves. This may seem selfish of them if you're thinking like a mature adult, but it's important for them to have opportunities to consider what they think about themselves and their world without harsh judgment from parents or teachers. If done at appropriate times, it helps them develop a stronger sense of who they are and what they want from life.
Thoughts of Their Future
Cognitive development in adolescence serves another purpose as well. It prepares them for future careers and relationships. During adolescence, children begin thinking about what they want to do when they go out on their own. They compare themselves to ideals, and they explore different careers. They also begin to make different life choices than they see their parents making. At this time, it's healthy for them to set important goals for the end of their adolescence and the beginning of their adult lives.
Understanding Others' Psychological Characteristics
In addition to gaining the ability to think more abstractly, adolescents also want to understand the psychological characteristics of their peers and others. They make guesses about how others think. Then, they use the resulting assumptions to decide how to interact with that person or whether to interact with them at all.
Adolescents usually base their friendships on similarities between their psychological characteristics and those of others. For example, an adolescent who sees himself as extroverted may choose another extrovert as a friend. Similarly, an adolescent who sees herself as honest may also choose friends who appear to be open and authentic.
Why it Matters
Adolescents need to develop cognitively and move through life in their own ways if they're to become mentally healthy adults. Understanding this process can help you be a better parent and can also help you cope with what can sometimes be a trying time.
Respect for Their Abilities
No one wants others to discount their abilities, and this is especially true of adolescents. To have a healthy relationship with your child, it's important to acknowledge their level of cognitive development. Give them credit for understanding concepts and abstractions better than they did as a young child. Anything else insults their intelligence and can drive a wedge between you.
Understanding Their Frustrations
During adolescence, children are at a stage where they're conflicted between wanting to be on their own and wanting to be taken care of by someone who is more capable. If you don't understand their level of cognitive development, it's unlikely that you can provide them with positive emotional support through these difficult years. Instead, you'll find that you miss the mark as you try to help without truly understanding.
Guiding Them Through Difficult Problems
Adolescents are busy gaining autonomy, so when difficult problems come up, they may feel inclined to try to manage them on their own. Certain problems may require cognitive skills they're just now developing. If you know how far along they are in cognitive development, you can better provide the appropriate level of support as they try to navigate the difficulties of adolescent life.
Helping Them Succeed in School
Of course, school is one of the most important parts of life for your adolescent. It takes up a lot of their time and prepares them for what lies ahead. Your child's teacher will almost certainly have an opinion about their level of cognitive development, and they might share that information with you, especially if your child is having learning or behavior problems.
However, it's important that you don't take the educator's view as absolute truth without assessing the situation from your viewpoint as a parent. You have access to information about your child that their teacher might not have, and you know your child in a way their teacher doesn't.
As you take an interest in your child's cognitive development, you can discover where they need additional help and be proactive in getting it for them. You can also see where they might be coming up shy of their potential. If so, you can encourage them to try new things or work harder. You can also provide them with appropriate learning opportunities for their stage of development.
How BetterHelp Can Support Adolescents
If your child is struggling or if you need support as a parent, you might want to talk to a therapist to understand more about your child and your relationship with them. If you think talk therapy would help you or your child (or both), BetterHelp offers convenient, affordable online therapy with over 4,000 licensed therapists, many of whom specialize in teens, families, and relationships. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from parents of teenagers.
"Tammi has made such a difference in my life. Had I not had her help I'm pretty sure I would've lost all contact with my 19 year old daughter who chose to live with her father. She understands teenagers and moms of teenagers! So kind, wise, experienced, compassionate, and level headed, I can't say enough good about her!!"
"I have been working with Carolyn for 6 months now, and have tremendously benefited from her counseling as I support my daughter for Anorexia. Anorexia is a very complex mind-body illness and the family members can play a very important role in the recovery by educating ourselves and understanding her behavior. This allows me to use correct words with her, and watch by own behavior with her so I am supporting her in a healthy manner, and not enabling her illness further. Additionally, my own stress has been very difficult as I watch my sweet daughter suffer, so I had been in need of finding coping skills for myself. Carolyn's expertise, her very compassionate but clear guidelines and feedback to me have made be more confident and capable in dealing with this difficult illness. I am finding a lot of strength from her therapy, and most importantly I am handling my daughter better and can see the difference in my interactions with her. I am thankful to Carolyn for coming into my life when I needed someone to guide me through this. In addition to our weekly video chats, I am able to send her quick texts on the BetterHelp app if an issue arises and I need her thoughts, and Carolyn replies back very quickly with more tips to help me. I have recommended BetterHelp to friends as access to a great therapist like Carolyn would not have been possible for me without this platform... while I also do this from the convenience of my time and home. Thank you Carolyn, and thank you BetterHelp for being here for me!"
As a parent, you can learn a lot about your child's cognitive development. Still, there may be times when you just can't understand why your child thinks or acts the way they do.
Often, this is simply because change can happen rapidly during adolescence. Even an expert might not have all the answers, but they can certainly help you figure out how to make your child's adolescence go more smoothly. All you need are the right tools and the right support. Take the first step today.