Understand How Teens Think

How We Talk to Our Teens Makes a Difference

We want our children to make wise, well-reasoned decisions. Our desire to keep them safe drives our need to shape those decisions. How we talk to our tweens and teens can make the difference between whether they absorb our lessons or rebel against them. Here’s what you need to know in a nutshell — your goal is to talk to them in a way that will make your teens take ownership over their solutions.

Let Teens Own Solutions

When teens arrive at their own solutions they feel in control. They have no need or desire to rebel. When we talk down to them, they reject our ideas. First, nobody likes to be controlled. Second, they may not even understand a word we are trying to get across. For these reasons, lectures, a common “go-to” approach for parents talking to teens – backfire badly.

Teens want to do the right thing. A key is to honor their intelligence by helping them figure out how to make the right choices on their own. For this to happen, they have to understand our words.  For us to know how to put our words together, we have to understand how they think.

Understand How Children Think

Young children see things as they seem. They don’t imagine themselves very far into the future, or foresee how their actions lead to future circumstances. They tend to think about how things affect them now. “Is that cookie for me? Yummy.” They don’t tend to see the complexity in situations or underlying motives of people. People are good or bad based on how nice they seem or what parents say about them. This kind of thinking is called “concrete” thinking because things are exactly as they seem. Not very complicated. Concrete thinkers are easily manipulated. So, we have to carefully watch them to protect them.

Teens want to do the right thing. A key is to honor their intelligence by helping them figure out how to make the right choices on their own.

Understand How Adults Think

Adults on the other hand see complexity. We can see into the future, and understand how things that offer immediate pleasure might have long term consequences. We see shades of grey, and even enjoy thinking about nuance. This is called abstract thought. Abstract thought can be highly protective to us because we are less easily manipulated and can consider the short as well as the long-term effects of our choices. (It is important to know that some people will never reach abstract thought, and that can be related to intelligence.)

Highly Stressed Thinking

ALL people go back to concrete thought when they are highly stressed. When we stress out our kids, even those who have achieved abstract thought, they suddenly can only see what is in front of them. They lose the ability to plan ahead, to consider consequences, and to grasp the complexity of human behavior. Why? Think of stress as being faced with a tiger. You can’t negotiate with a tiger. You don’t have time to think about what the tiger may be feeling. You run from a tiger! When facing a stressful situation, we often revert to thinking in absolute terms. And sometimes it takes only our disappointed glance or harsh words to stress out our children.

Understand How Adolescents Think

So, children think concretely, and nearly all adults can think abstractly. How about adolescents? They are thinking somewhere in between. Early adolescents are closer to concrete, and later adolescents may have fully reached abstract thought.

A Miracle of Adolescent Development

Among the miracles of adolescent development is that they gain the ability to see complexity, imagine consequences, and consider others’ point of view. As tweens and teens begin thinking abstractly, their imaginations go wild, and they pose lots of not-so-easy-to-answer questions. It is a time when many young people reflect on large spiritual questions and seek ultimate truths. One of the inspirational aspects of this stage of development is that youth see injustice and inequities, and then seek and demand solutions. Our societies have thrived and grown because of the possibilities youth see.

What drives these wonderful developments? First the brain actually changes. It matures throughout development allowing adolescents to increasingly move towards abstract thought. Next, kids have experiences. They learn that a short-term investment, like studying, can pay off in long-term knowledge. They learn that good friendships and close trusted relationships bring joy in the moment and security when it really counts. But experiences can often result in painful lessons as well. Flattery can entice. Generosity can cover an underlying motive. Fleeting pleasures can lead to longer term problems.

As parents, we want our tweens and teens to learn from the positive experiences, but want to shield them from life’s painful lessons. We know people can mislead for their own gains. We know that exhilarating moments can lead to unforeseen tragedies. We know that “highs” may be fun for a few moments but can lead to addictions.

The Typical Lecture

Too often, knowing what we know, we just choose to tell them. How do we tell them? In a lecture that goes something like this…

“What you are doing now, let’s call it behavior A! It will very likely lead to consequence B! What were you thinking? And then consequence B will go on to consequence C, which almost always ends up with D happening! Here comes consequence E. Look at me when I’m talking to you! If you find yourself doing E, you could lose control. Then, depending on factors completely out of your control, consequence F, G, or H will happen. If I happens, Do you know what happens then?  You could die!”

What do they hear? “Blah, blah, blah…then you could die!”

It’s Like Complicated Math

Think about that lecture. It’s as complicated to understand as algebra can be to learn for many teens. There are all sorts of mysterious ways that variables affect the outcome. We don’t teach algebra to somebody whose brain isn’t ready for it, nor do we teach it to somebody who is too stressed to pay attention. When we do, it leads to frustration because they don’t understand the problem.

When we lecture young people, they become frustrated because they can’t follow our thoughts. They hear our concern but don’t grasp the content of our message. They sense our condescension. Lectures take control away, and that undermines a growing sense of competence. Remember, frustration and powerlessness lead to stress, and stress drives negative, worrisome behaviors. We lecture to protect our children, but our noble intentions can backfire.

Deliver Information in a Format Teens Will Understand

Our challenge is to offer information in a way that helps our children absorb our messages and own the solutions. When we do this right, the lesson is more likely to be long-lasting and will reinforce their motivation to follow through on their plans.

Early adolescents (and stressed-out people) can better absorb information if it is delivered with a concrete mathematical structure – like 2 plus 2 equals 4. Add 1 and then you get 5. They can better follow our logic if instead of a string of abstract possibilities (A to B to C to D), the lesson is broken down into small concrete separate steps.

“I appreciate your desire to do A. But I am worried A might lead to B. Do you have any experience with something like that? Tell me about that experience. What might you do to make sure that doesn’t happen to you?”

Then allow the young person to reflect and absorb the lesson of B. Only when they really get B, do you bring up C.

“Do you see how B might lead to C? Have you ever seen that happen? What are your plans to avoid that happening here?”

We acknowledge their existing wisdom and reinforce thought patterns that could contribute to their safety and health. We pause at each step as they figure things out that they had not previously considered. They are the experts in their own lives. We are the facilitators. The wisdom existed within them, we simply offered them the gift of guiding them towards their own wisdom. We lead them as they “get it…got it…own it” — controlling their own destiny.

Remain Calm and Guide Them if Necessary

And we must do all of this with calmness, even if we are full of terror. If you can’t be calm, it is not the right time to guide your child.

We’re asking our tweens and teens to consider possible consequences based on their own experiences, rather than through scenarios we dictate. They may better learn the lessons because they figured them out.

If your child can’t seem to get to the conclusions you hope they reach, it’s okay to lead them a bit with, “I worry that might lead to _____, what do you think?” Don’t be surprised if they see much rosier outcomes to poor choices than you had imagined. Remember, never to be shocked or condescending. Instead respond with “I could see why that would seem like something great that could happen, but I am worried that __________ may be just as, or even more, likely.  What do you think?” Let them think on it.

Parenting is tough. Even for people who write books about this stuff. But figuring out how to communicate with your child doesn’t require a doctorate in parenting. It usually just requires common sense. You have experience. You have a protective instinct. You get the potential dangers and understand the choices they may face. You don’t have a lot new to learn. You just need to remember to take a break, remain calm, and deliver the information in a way that your child will understand.


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.

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 www.fosteringresilience.com.

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