Cognitive Development in Adolescence


What is cognitive development?

Cognitive development refers to the growth of a child’s ability to think and reason. This growth happens during adolescence and is expressed differently from ages 6 to 12 and ages 12 to 18. 

Concrete operations

Children ages 6 to 12 years old develop the ability to think in concrete ways. These ways of thinking are called concrete operations because they are done around objects and events. 

Concrete operations include the ability to: 

  • Combine and use addition
  • Separate by subtracting and dividing
  • Order by alphabetizing and sorting.
  • Transform objects and actions, like changing 5 pennies to be the same as 1 nickel.

Formal logical operations

Adolescents 12 to 18 years old do more complex thinking, known as formal logical operations. 

Formal logical operations include the ability to:

  • Think abstractly and consider possibilities.
  • Reason from known principles and form their own ideas or questions.
  • Consider many points of view to compare or debate ideas and opinions.
  • Analyze the process of thinking and be aware of the act of thought processes.

Stages of adolescence

During each stage of adolescence, a child's cognitive abilities advance and become more refined as they move from concrete thinking to formal logical operations.

A child in early adolescence:

  • Uses more complex thinking focused on personal decision-making in school and at home.
  • Starts to show the use of formal logical operations in schoolwork.
  • Forms and communicates their own thoughts and views on a variety of topics.
  • Begins to question authority and society standards.
  • Starts to talk about which sports or groups they prefer, what kinds of personal appearance is attractive, and what parental rules should be changed.

A child in middle adolescence:

  • Will have some experience in using more complex thinking processes.
  • Expands their thinking to include more philosophical and futuristic concerns.
  • Questions things more extensively.
  • Starts to frequently analyze in greater detail.
  • Begins to form their own code of ethics in regards to what is right and wrong.
  • Thinks about different possibilities and begins to develop their own identity.
  • Systematically considers their possible future goals.
  • Starts to think about and create their own plans.
  • Thinks about things in a long-term perspective.
  • Uses systematic thinking to influence their relationships with others.

A child in late adolescence:

  • Uses complex thinking to focus on less self-centered concepts and personal decision-making.
  • Increases their thoughts about more global concepts like justice, history, politics, and patriotism.
  • Develops idealistic views on specific topics or concerns.
  • Debates and develops an intolerance of opposing views.
  • Begins to focus on making future career decisions.
  • Starts to think about their emerging role in adult society.

What can you do as a parent?

As a parent and rolemodel, you can encourage and influence your child's cognitive development.

As you watch your child grow, it's important to note that:

  • Children progress at their own rate in their ability to think in more complex ways.
  • Some children may be able to use logical operations in schoolwork long before they can use them for personal problems.
  • Each child develops their own individualized view of the world.
  • When emotional issues come up, a child may have difficulties thinking in complex ways.
  • Considering possibilities and facts may impact decision-making. This can happen in either positive or negative ways.

To promote positive and healthy cognitive growth for your child, you can:

  • Include them in discussions about a variety of topics, issues, and current event.
  • Encourage them to share their thoughts and ideas with you.
  • Challenge them to think independently and develop their own ideas.
  • Assist them in setting personal goals.
  • Encourage them to think about possibilities for the future.
  • Compliment and praise them for well-thought-out decisions.
  • Help guide them to re-evaluate poorly made decisions.

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