Cognitive Development: Thinking on New Levels

Adolescent Cognitive Development

Adolescence is a time of change. Some changes are hard to miss, like when you turn around and notice that your child seems to have grown a head taller. But what may be the most miraculous change is one you can’t see at all. It is the transformation in how your child can think — or cognitive development. Cognitive development is critical in preparing young people to be able to manage complexity, make judgments, and plan for the future.

Adolescents whose thinking is well-developed will be successful and prepared to lead us forward. Parents and caregivers support adolescents’ growing cognitive development when we:

  • Create an environment where teens’ ideas and independent thinking are valued.
  • Engage teens in discussions about current events, and ask them to consider solutions to problems.
  • Recognize when teens make well-thought-out decisions.
  • Help teens reconsider their mistakes. Encourage them to imagine how consequences could have been avoided.
  • Engage in political and spiritual discussions calmly, even if we do not share their views.
  • Celebrate the idealism of youth and recognize it as the hope for the future.
  • Listen to teens plan for their future and encourage them to discover more about themselves over time.
Cognitive development is a critical developmental process we need to learn to appreciate, even if some of it creates uncomfortable moments for us.

The Way We Think Changes Over Time

Young children through the ages of approximately 11 or 12 tend to think in concrete ways. This means they see things as they are. They do not look far into the future, imagine nuance, or grasp complex motivations that sometimes drive behavior. They are avid listeners, but they learn based on what they can see, touch, and manipulate. So, for example, they can do math in so far as they add, subtract, or change objects from one form (two nickels) to another (a dime). Young children are good at putting things in categories (alphabetizing, sorting by color) or placing in descending order of height. They can be thoughtful, but mostly about things they can easily describe or imagine experiencing here and now. While they have close, loving relationships, they are largely focused on what people do for them.

Younger children may  ask, “Is that cookie for me?” But those who are further along in their cognitive development may begin to fixate less on the cookie and think more about the other person’s intentions for giving them the cookie in the first place. Or perhaps they may pause to consider their own desire for the cookie. While children generally don’t think in abstract terms, it’s not because they can’t do it. They just may not do it consistently. But with proper support, they can do it more regularly.

Cognitive Development & Abstract Thought

As cognitive development progresses in adolescence, teens begin to be able to think in more abstract ways. They imagine possibilities far into the future and may think about the concept of thinking itself. Teens may be intrigued by philosophy and other intellectual pursuits and they begin to appreciate symbolism. When they interact with others, they understand that actions may not represent true thoughts or intentions. As they move further into adulthood, they begin to more fully embrace their role in the world, and put into play plans that allow them to uniquely contribute.

We typically transition from concrete to abstract thought during adolescence. Adolescence is a period when our coordination grows between emotion, attention and behavior. Puberty and the experiences life offers us both play a role in the way the brain and body develop together. It is worth noting that while nearly all adults are capable of abstract thought, many tend to rely on concrete thinking instead. And people who are highly stressed find it challenging to draw on their abstract skills while in crisis.

Cognitive Development is a Process, Not an Event

We don’t wake up one day with philosophical thoughts, the capacity to solve a complicated math problem, or the ability to understand the complexity of human behavior. Rather, we build new understandings based on past experiences. And this often takes our questioning to a different level. Our questioning leads to the answers that allow us to further stretch our thinking.

Like all of development, cognitive development is uneven. Age alone is not the only reason we develop. While cognitive development is tied to physical development, we cannot assume that just because a teen’s body has matured that his/her brain has caught up yet. The ability to think in more mature ways can also differ by setting. Teens may develop new cognitive skills in school settings before personal settings. For example, teens may use improvements in memory or selective attention in school but not at home. Their emotional centers develop faster than decision-making centers, so they may not apply the same thinking skills when hanging out with friends that they would use in school. And, they may not think in the same way in a heated moment as they would when calm (neither do adults!).

Signals the Teen Brain is Developing

Here are some noticeable clues that changes in the brain are taking place. (The ages given are approximations not absolute ranges.)

Early Adolescents (11-14):

  • Develop a personalized way to communicate as they imagine they can make their own decisions. This means they’ll learn better how to tell you why they are thinking what they are thinking, and doing what they’re doing.
  • Focus on personal decisions as they start understanding that parental authority is not absolute.
  • Question parental authority, why rules are made, and why rules of society exist.

Middle Adolescents (14-18):

  • May question authority more extensively as they are better able to distinguish between issues that authority figures have the right to regulate and issues that are their own personal choices.
  • Can better link current behaviors to future consequences.
  • Begin to imagine their own identity and role in the world.
  • Have a need to make their own plans.
  • Can increasingly consider complexity.
  • Begin to see higher ethical and moral standards as a result of their questioning of rules.

Late Adolescents (18-24):

  • Make early career decisions and plan for their role in the adult world.
  • Can apply their views to global concepts like justice and equity.
  • Begin to balance their idealism with reality-based constraints.
  • Become more comfortable debating their ideas and opposing authority.


Understand How Teens Think to Improve Communication

Successful conversations with teens happen when parents recognize how their children think. Consider developmental milestones when trying to communicate with adolescents.


Meet Them Where They’re At

Consider your tween or teen’s mood before starting a discussion. It’s important your concerns are expressed as part of a respectful conversation.


Make it a Two-Way Conversation

Lecturing can be frustrating and hard to follow for many young people. Parents should offer information in ways that children can understand. Have back and forth discussions that allow teens to take ownership of solutions.


Know Their Level of Development

Understand what phase of development your child is in and their ability to understand complex information. Young children see things exactly as they are -- concretely. Adults see possibilities and imagine future consequences -- abstractly. Adolescents think somewhere in the middle.


Consider Their Stress Level

Young people under stress may lose the ability to plan ahead and consider the consequences of their actions. Adults also have trouble thinking clearly when stressed. Approach difficult conversations when you both can remain calm and level-headed.

Celebrate Cognitive Development

Cognitive development is a critical developmental process we need to learn to appreciate, even if some of it creates uncomfortable moments for us. Remember, the only way our tweens and teens can navigate the world is if they understand not to take everything at face value. And the only way they will improve our world and lead us into the future is if they question those things that adults have grown accustomed to, but ought to change. Here are some ways you can celebrate your teen’s cognitive development.

Appreciate the Return of No and Why

Remember when your children were two? Their favorite word was “no!” That was both annoying and endearing, but it was critical to understanding that they had the capacity to make choices. The next stage of development was questioning “why” to everything you said. A bit maddening, but also enthralling as you watched their understanding of the universe take shape – you answered all of their questions because you wanted them to be bright and inquisitive. Even as you grew exhausted.

Well, “no” and “why” are back. The fact that teens question authority is a critical step in their control over their choices. The fact that they demand explanations rather than blindly accept our rules or society’s standards is precisely what they must do to understand how and why things work. The cognitive gains during this period allow teens to make better arguments. So in this new world  of nos and whys, what may be perceived as teens being more argumentative is actually a sign of cognitive development. And the ability to make an effective argument is important in the long run!

Let Them Test Limits

Successful people imagine possibilities. They think outside-the-box. It is a young person’s cognitive task to push boundaries and imagine what is beyond the limits set. It is our job to set limits that ensure safety and morality are firmly in place, while allowing our teens to stretch all other limits. And we must help them understand why rules and limits exist.

Allow for Risk-Taking

Risk-taking allows young people to test possibilities. We create safe boundaries to ensure safety and morality. Within those boundaries we allow experimentation. This is critical to healthy brain development and learning. There are many healthy ways to test limits. Our role is to nurture these healthy learning opportunities. Trying out for a play. Singing solo in the church choir. Asking somebody to prom. Even if the risk taken is a mistake, teens learn and grow from the risks they take and mistakes they make.

Support Decision Making

One of the main changes between adolescence and adulthood is the continued development of decision-making based on experience. As caring adults we should encourage decision making, including letting them follow through on their decisions and learn from the consequences. This is the best way to help reinforce wise decisions and learn how to make better ones. Our job as guides, however, is to prevent them from making poor decisions in territory that could harm their safety or compromise their morality. That is why we set clear boundaries, and model desirable behaviors.

Encourage Them to Think About…Thinking

Thinking about thinking is exhilarating. Imagining possibilities is a profound privilege. It is an amazing thing to watch as our teens discover that many answers aren’t the final word. The fact that questions drive more questions is at the root of creativity and innovation. Even if you know the answers, sit with your teens and enjoy these conversations about complexity so you can nurture their ability to think and solve problems.

Honor Teen Intelligence by Turning off the Lecture

We want to honor our teens’ intelligence and help them to problem solve. We do so by facilitating their thought processes so they can develop, and ultimately, own their solutions. Lectures undermine teens’ intelligence by stifling their ability to solve their own problems. The lecture is essentially a top down approach to parenting. It tends to be very abstract and makes assumptions about future behavior and consequences, which some adolescents may have difficulty understanding. Lectures are also usually delivered during a stressful time. And because adolescents are highly attuned to social/emotional information, when we talk to them in an angry voice, they may end up paying more attention to our anger than to what is being said. Bottom line, when we are stressed (teens and adults alike), our ability to think abstractly is reduced.

Be the Model

Adults are quite used to their ability to think abstractly. It’s not a shiny new toy. So we may not talk very much about why we think what we think. With teens, it’s important to share how we actively think through problems, value thoughtfulness in others, consider complexity and consequences, and plan for the future. The more we do these things, the easier teens will find it to nurture their own cognitive development. Being a role model also entails being a sounding board to our teens as they begin to distinguish between society’s rules and personal choices. The ability to think critically is a skill we should want all teens — not just our own — to have.

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit

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