While this blog often focuses on young children, children do grow up and parents eventually become the parents of adolescents. Adolescents is an interesting time in development in which kids are going through a second round of quick and intense physical, emotional, and cognitive development. I think most parents think and recognize the physical and emotional development changes, probably because they are the changes that are directly in your face: giant growth spurts, voice changes, and sudden unpredictable moodiness.
The cognitive changes are less likely to be front-and-center for parents but are fascinating when they are considered. Adolescents are in what Piaget calls the Formal Operational Stage. A stage in which we begin to use more scientific, systematic thinking and in which we develop the capacity to truly think abstractly. Unfortunately, these abilities to think and process more critically can have an impact on the way in which adolescents see themselves and also how they think about the world around them- for both the good and the bad.
During adolescents, teens are much more self-conscious and self-aware. They tend to think that the world is more focused on them than it really is. As a result, they become more self-conscious and try to avoid embarrassment. At the same time, adolescents also feel that bad things couldn’t happen to them, even though cognitively they are able to understand risk and consequences better than in their early childhood days. During adolescents, they develop a sense of invincibility which can lead to increased risk taking behavior.
Without getting too much into brain development, remember when your preschooler and elementary-school aged child had a hard time paying attention, following directions, and keeping different tasks in mind (first clean your room, then find your book, then you can play)? Interestingly, the part of the brain responsible for many of these actions, the prefrontal cortex, is still not fully developed by adolescence. This plays a part in the risk taking behavior of adolescence because this is also the part of the brain that helps us weigh outcomes and controls our impulses and emotions. And despite previous research, we now know that this part of the brain doesn’t even fully develop until the mid to late 20’s.
So why does this matter? I think sometimes parents of adolescents are as confused and overwhelmed as the teens themselves. This is a period of rapid change and both parents and teens are adjusting simultaneously. Understanding that your teen is still not able to fully think like an adult, despite being bigger and already smarter than you, may help parents adjust their expectations and understanding of where their teens actually are in development. Also, knowing that so much of their teen’s brain, body, and emotions are still in the process of developing and changing, may help parents predict and handle the situations that arise.