Cognitive Development: Understanding Your Child’s Adolescent Mind

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E and Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated July 12, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

An adolescent reaches a new stage of cognitive development that moves them from the concrete mode of thinking as a child to more complex thinking processes. This maturity in cognition gives adolescents the ability to form their ideas and questions while considering multiple points of view. 

While you may find your adolescent is behaving in ways that seem irrational or overly emotional, they are simply growing neurologically in amazing ways. With some basic knowledge of what cognitive development means 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. The prefrontal cortex matures rapidly during adolescence and these brain changes come with changes in cognition (or thinking). The prefrontal cortex is responsible for reasoning, impulse control, working memory, and rational decision-making. This part of the brain greatly impacts adolescent brain development and decision-making.

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
Your child is unique - including the way they think

Cognitive development refers to the changing thought processes that occur as we mature. It begins as soon as we are born (if not before) and continues into adulthood. What cognitive development means in adolescence is specifically bringing about important changes that allow us to transition from childhood to adulthood successfully. In this section, the many different aspects of this development are explored.

Stage of formal operations

Jean Piaget's work on cognitive development was a seminal contribution to adolescent psychology. He describes adolescence as the stage of life when an individual's ideas begin to take on more abstract forms and egocentric thoughts recede. This enables an individual to think and reason from a broader perspective.

Piaget broke down the cognitive progress of childhood into four different stages:

  • Sensory motor - From birth to 2 years old learning is largely sensory-based, the child explores the world through movement and sensation.

  • Pre-operational - Between the ages of 2 and 7, imagination play begins. A child can transform objects based on the needs of their narrative. For example, a broom can become a horse.

  • Concrete operations - In this stage, older children begin to understand logical operations, and gain sufficient maturity to operate through parental rules as well as societal rules.

  • Formal operations. Typically begun in early adolescence, in this stage the individual will begin to explore less self-centered concepts, debate ideas, understand more global concepts, and form their code for living. This is the stage we will discuss here.

Piaget used the term "Stage of Formal Operations" to describe the stage of adolescent cognitive development. In this stage, children gain the ability to abstract thinking 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, allowing them to form new ideas about life.

Abstract thought

In early childhood, concrete thinking is the norm. Unlike younger children, adolescents can demonstrate abstract thinking skills. Here is 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. This type of cognition is called concrete operations.

On the other hand, an adolescent doesn't need to think of pencils or any other visual representation to know that 2 + 6 = 8. They can solve much more complex math problems without referring to physical objects of any kind.

Getty/AnnaStills

Hypotheticals

Adolescents also develop the ability to imagine hypothetical situations. This might be a social situation, a subject they are learning about, or a challenge they are 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 And Increase Knowledge

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:

  • Increased ability in formal logical operations such as deductive reasoning 

  • Improved decision-making skills

  • Increased working memory capacity 

  • Increased ability for memory retrieval

  • Increased ability for autonomous learning and choice

A child's knowledge increases as they move into and through adolescence. However, this does not happen just because they have had more time to pile on facts. Their ability to acquire new knowledge also increases. Some of the relevant changes you can expect in your child include:

  1. Increases In Declarative Knowledge: When you say, "I know that…," you're talking about declarative knowledge, which includes facts, concepts, and formulae.

  2. 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.

  3. Increases In Conceptual Knowledge: Conceptual knowledge, the "I know why" type of knowledge, typically increases at a dramatic clip during adolescence. This leads adolescents to form new ideas around a large variety of topics. You may begin to see their new complex thinking focused on more global concepts. 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. Rather, they are gaining experience with seeing things from a new perspective and are learning how to make well-thought-out decisions.

Self-reflection

Adolescents spend a lot of time thinking about themselves. This may seem selfish if you are thinking like a mature adult. Yet, they need to have opportunities to explore self-centered concepts about their lives and their world without harsh judgment from parents or teachers. If done at appropriate times, self-reflection leads to a stronger sense of their own identity 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 grow into adulthood. Futuristic concerns are especially common during the middle adolescence stage, which occurs between the ages of 14-17. This is often where making career decisions begins. They compare themselves to ideals and explore different career paths during this period. Many experiencing middle adolescence may also begin to make different life choices than they see their caregivers making. At this time, it is healthy for them to form their plans and set important goals for the end of their adolescence and their entrance into adult society.

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, someone in this age group 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.

Respect for their abilities

Adolescents need to develop healthy cognitive growth and move through life in their way if they are 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.

No one wants others to discount their abilities, and this is especially true of adolescents. To have a healthy relationship with your child, it is 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 them.

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
Your child is unique - including the way they think

Understanding their frustrations

During adolescence, children are at a stage where they are conflicted between wanting to be on their own and wanting to be taken care of by someone more capable. They are trying to form their thoughts about authority and societal standards. If you do not understand their level of cognitive development, it is unlikely that you can provide them with positive emotional support through these difficult years. Instead, you may 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 arise, they may feel inclined to try to manage them independently. Certain problems may require cognitive skills they are just now developing. If you know how far they are in cognitive development, you can better provide the appropriate level of support as they try to navigate the difficulties of personal decision-making in 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 impart that information to you, especially if your child is having learning or behavior problems.

However, there is no need to take the educator's view as absolute truth without assessing the situation from your viewpoint as a parent. You have contact to information about your child that their teacher might not have, and you know your child in a way their teacher does not.

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

There is a large amount of evidence suggesting that online therapy programs can help parents better understand their children’s thoughts and behaviors. In a study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy, researchers examined the effectiveness of an online parenting program for those with children who exhibit signs of behavioral issues. After treatment, participants reported that there was less stress, anger, and conflict due to parenting. Researchers concluded that online programs have the potential to help create better parenting styles and foster significant positive behavioral changes in children. These findings are consistent with those from several similar studies showing that online therapy can provide useful tools to address varied mental health issues.

As mentioned above, if your child is struggling or if you need support as a parent, you might want to talk to an online therapist to understand more about your child and your relationship with them. A licensed counselor with BetterHelp can help you and your family better understand how your child’s mind works. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from parents of teenagers.

Takeaway

During adolescent development, the brain goes through significant changes as abstract thinking skills, emotional development, and other information-processing skills mature. Cognitive development during adolescence may contribute to adolescent egocentrism; adolescents are developing their own perceptions, but have not yet learned to differentiate them from others. In the long term, this adolescent cognitive growth is necessary to develop adult thinking skills.

As a parent, you can learn a lot about your child's cognitive development. Still, there may be times when you are unable to 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.

Adolescence can be a challenging life stage
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started