The adolescent mind

Learn how the teenager's mind matures.

By Cindy Barrett

The following is excerpted from Understanding Your Teen: Ages 13 to 19 edited by Canadian Living section editor Christine Langlois (Ballantine Books, 1999).

As their brains approach maturity, teens are poised for tremendous cognitive development. Experts speculate that as the myelinization of neural connections increases and strengthens, the learning processes of teens mature and their ability to think abstractly improves. There is as yet little research linking myelinization with the development of abstract thought, but parents and teachers watch this development unfold throughout the teen years.

You may not have realized that your teen's ability to be sarcastic signals a greater capacity to handle more abstract thought, but that's exactly what's happening. Along with an appreciation of sarcasm, she can also appreciate and use metaphor, satire, and irony — all evidence that she's thinking more abstractly. Teens also find some television programs more entertaining as their ability develops to appreciate different levels of humour.

Teens become more capable of handling advanced concepts in mathematics and the sciences and can handle a more complex curriculum. Algebra appears as a separate topic or course on the mathematics curriculum because teens have a greater capacity to comprehend letters standing in for unknown numbers in an equation. They also handle better the process of hypothesizing (setting up a tentative explanation or theory) and testing the hypothesis through investigation of the facts.

These developments in cognition also turn teens into delightful conversationalists. For some parents, adolescence is their favourite phase of childhood because they enjoy the stimulating conversation, the quick humour and the verbal sparring their children are now capable of after years of communicating on a much simpler level.

These cognitive changes support teens as they begin to go through the phases of separation from their parents and the rest of the family to develop individual identities. Kim Schonert-Reichl, who teaches adolescent psychology at the University of British Columbia, points out that adolescents comprehend the concept of friendship in the abstract. They understand their own feelings and the importance of empathizing with others' feelings, of sharing thoughts, feelings and secrets, of trusting someone close.

Teens show a tremendous variation in the age at which their thought processes begin to mature, and unlike their physical growth and development, their emotional and cognitive developments are not in constant progression — there is a kind of ebb and flow of mature and immature thought. Kids don't all show their capacity for abstract thought at the same age. Nor are they able to apply abstract thought in other areas of their lives despite having acquired the capacity in academic subjects. A Grade 8 teacher who uses sarcasm to make a point in class may make half the students laugh with her but leave the others wondering why she would say such a thing. And some of those who understood the sarcasm might still not be able to grasp algebraic concepts.

Have you ever wondered why you and your teen spend so much time arguing? One result of their cognitive growth and development is that teens become more adept at using logic. They're better at teasing out the inconsistencies in all that you say and do. You may be in the middle of lecturing your teen about her messy room when she turns the tables on you: "What about all your paperwork that's been spread over the dining room table for over a week? At least I keep my mess in my own bedroom!"

Try convincing your immortal teen about the perils of smoking if you smoked when you were a teenager: "Why shouldn't I make my own mistakes?" If you refuse permission for an evening out on a school night, you may be met with: "When has going to work in the morning ever stopped you from going out at night? So what if I'm a little tired tomorrow morning? I'll make it up tomorrow night." Verbal combat with a teen can be hard on your own self-esteem, but try to step back from the arguments rather than take them personally. Consider your teen's need to have his say part of his brain development.

Another result of thought maturity is that teens can speculate about the future, not only their own but the future of their environment. This is a time when they take hold of a social cause with a passion and devote a lot of time and energy to it. Be prepared to have every slip of yours thrown back at you. You might view bringing some desk supplies home from the office for your "home work" as justifiable, but a teen on the lookout for a parent who doesn't practise what she preaches may consider it inexcusable. Choosing to be the designated driver and drinking soda at an event at which your teen notes the number of glasses of wine everyone drank is a more powerful message than all the verbal instruction you give on the dangers of drinking and driving. Modelling the kind of behaviour you expect your kids to demonstrate remains important as they move through adolescence.

Unfortunately many teens have difficulty understanding risk in the abstract and they have an unshakable belief in their own invincibility. Car crashes, lost limbs, unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases happen to other people; they are cloaked in an invisible, protective force field. Dr. Schonert-Reichl suggests that a belief in their own infallibility, their "personal fable," may help protect teens at a time when they're feeling a lot of stress from the many changes they experience in a short time span. One study Schonert-Reichl conducted among seventy-five 12- to 15-year-olds in Vancouver showed that the stronger a kid's personal fable, the less likely the teen was to experience symptoms of depression in response to stress.

Adults take risks every day when they drive cars, speak up at a public meeting or apply for a new job. Adolescence is the time to learn that healthy risk taking is a good and necessary part of adult life. But, as a parent, you have to help your teen learn about unnecessary and foolish risks. Parents and educators have much better success piercing the teens' force field of invincibility by using concrete examples.

• One principal had the car wreck from a teen's drunk-driving fatality towed to the front of the school before the graduation dance to impress upon other teens the danger of drinking and driving after their prom parties.

• An effective presentation on water safety could be made by a teen who had to be confined to a wheelchair after damaging his spinal cord diving into unknown water that proved to be too shallow.

• A talk about safe sexual practices by a teen who developed AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) after becoming infected by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) during unprotected sex makes a much stronger impression than a talk by a health-care professional.

You can help your teen move from concrete examples or experiences to abstract thought in other areas of his life. When he's trying to solve a problem or understand what went wrong in a situation, don't impose your own view. Instead, help him to see other possibilities for himself. Ask, "What were you thinking when you decided this was the best approach to that problem?" Get him thinking about what went wrong and what he would do differently next time.

Look for opportunities to involve your teen meaningfully in family decisions. When you and your partner are discussing where to go on the annual family holiday, ask your son for input. If he suggests a trip to the Yukon in February, resist the urge to make a sarcastic remark about the chances of total body frostbite. Instead, deal with the idea in a straightforward manner. Ask, "Why the Yukon?" Discuss what appeals to him.

Ask him, "How cold do you think it might be then? How could we check on the temperatures?" Take his choice seriously but help him figure out when would be the best time for him — and the rest of the family — to experience what you all like doing on vacation. Although a winter holiday in the Far North might not be appealing for your whole family, listen carefully to his thinking; perhaps he's looking for an adventure vacation or a chance to experience nature in the raw.

"About two years ago, when our son Leigh was 15, we realized he was in a real funk about something. It took a lot of talking for us to figure out that he was suddenly carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was seeing all the hunger and war and disaster in the world and for the first time it hit him that these were real people who were suffering.

My husband, Tom, had told me a similar story about himself, how he was babysitting his siblings one evening when he was about 14, and his parents came home to find him sobbing. He'd been watching the news and was suddenly struck with an awareness of all the problems of the world.

Later that year Leigh watched the movie Schindler's List with his 12-year-old brother, Carey. I could clearly see that the portrayal of the Jewish Holocaust really struck Leigh, while the same wasn't true of his brother. But Carey is 15 now and studying World War II in history, and he wants to see that movie again. At this age he's ready to relate to something that he can't actually touch or feel or see, something that happened 50 years ago, and yet I know this time there will be the connection."
– JEANNE, MOTHER OF FOUR

"A year ago Jen, who's now 16, was saying that she was going to grow up and become a model and live in California, marry a movie star, and have twins — one boy and one girl. Today she laughs in wonder that she ever thought that way, and while she hasn't informed us of a new plan, we can see that her thoughts on the future have become a little more realistic."
– TRISHA, MOTHER OF THREE

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