Changes in Thinking
Colleen Gengler, Extension Educator, emerita — Family Relations
2011. Reviewed March 2017 by Jodi Dworkin, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor — Family Social Science.
Teens are undergoing changes in thinking or cognitive processes. Cognition can be viewed as the thought processes occurring within the structure of the brain.
Improved Thinking Skills
By the age of 15 or 16, teens have the same thinking abilities as adults. There are three basic areas where teens' thinking has grown during childhood:
- Reasoning — Includes an improved ability to think about options, to challenge long held ideas, and to consider possibilities.
- Abstract thinking — Includes the ability to think about things all the way from emotions and what they mean to academic concepts such as mathematical equations.
- The ability to "think about thinking" — The ability to step outside oneself and consider one's thoughts and what others might be thinking.
Teens may use these advanced thinking skills to challenge parents in order to test out and explore new ideas. Teens need help learning to express their ideas and challenge others in appropriate ways. Their expression of new ideas is part of normal development and shouldn't be viewed as defiant behavior. The exception might be if the challenges are frequent, disrespectful, and accompanied by acting out or other problem behaviors.
What Parents Can Do
Teens might be better able to think about a situation and develop logical options than adolescents. Because overall brain functions are still not mature, however, teens may still have trouble thinking through problems and carrying out appropriate decisions in daily life.
- Engage teens in conversation and exploration of ideas and information.
- Keep in mind that teens are also learning how to express these new ideas; sometimes that expression seems disrespectful to parents.
- Model how to express different viewpoints in a respectful way.
- If need be, set basic rules for conversation; discussions need to be done in a respectful manner by both teens and parents.
- Don't put down or criticize ideas teens come up with as crazy or impossible. Instead, ask how they came to their conclusion, and encourage them to think through alternatives.
Gardner, M., & Steinberg, L. (2005). Peer influence on risk-taking, risk preference, and risky decision-making in adolescence and adulthood: An experimental study. Developmental Psychology, 41, 625-635.
McNeely, C., & Blanchard, J. (2010). The teen years explained: A guide to healthy adolescent development. Baltimore: Center for Adolescent Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Simpson, A. R. (2001). Raising teens: A synthesis of research and a foundation for action. Boston: Center for Health Communication, Harvard School of Public Health.
Steinberg, L. (2008). Adolescence. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Social and Emotional Changes — Understand two important developmental tasks teen undertake during this time. Part of the Teen Talk: A Survival Guide for Parents of Teens series.
Identity: Figuring Out Who You Are — Learn how teens work out who they are. Part of the Teen Talk: A Survival Guide for Parents of Teens series.
The Teen Years Explained — Clea McNeely, PhD and Jayne Blanchard — This e-book can help both teens and adults to understand developmental changes and tips for how to apply this knowledge to your everyday life.