Understanding The Developing Teenager

By Jeff Comas


Since 1989 when I became a music educator, I have worked with many hundreds of children and adolescents. While I hold no specialized certification outside of my license as an instructor of the Childbloom Guitar Program, I do consider myself somewhat of an expert in child development. I have made it a point to educate myself through observation and the study of child psychologists such as Jean Piaget.

While some of Piaget’s findings have become disputed, I find his observations to be right on the money and still quite relevant nearly 100 years after his first publications. Piaget identified four stages of cognitive development and considered the fourth stage the final stage. He thought the personal changes one experiences beyond the final stage to be a result of acquired knowledge and experience. He identified five characteristic indicators of this final stage:

  1. mental operations
  2. hypothetico-deductive reasoning
  3. propositional thought
  4. the imaginary audience
  5. the personal fable.

This final stage is typically referred to as the Age of Formal Operations and begins as the child reaches puberty, usually between the ages of 11 & 14. This stage of development brings new abilities to the child’s mind, and most struggle to reconcile these new talents.

Mental Operations

Adolescents become able to logically use symbols related to abstract concepts, such as algebra and science. They can think about multiple variables in systematic ways, formulate hypotheses, and consider possibilities. They also can ponder abstract relationships and concepts such as justice.

Hypothetico-deductive Reasoning

In addition to the ability to perform abstract mental operations, teens become more scientific and logical in the way they think about problems. They can now consider a problem or situation and can identify the many variables that may influence or affect the outcome. This ability is useful because it enables them to select logical/sensible solutions to problems.

Propositional Thought

Adolescents can determine whether a statement is logical based solely on the wording of the statement rather than having to observe or re-create the actual scenario to determine if it is logical.

The Imaginary Audience

Adolescents become better students of observation and interpretation. They begin to observe other people’s behavior, expressions, comments, and appearance. They make speculations about what others may be thinking, wanting, needing, or feeling. They also begin to wonder what other people are thinking about them.

The Personal Fable

Many teens believe they have unique abilities and/or unique problems. On one hand may feel as though they are better, smarter, or stronger than others. On the other hand, they may feel as though they are dumber, weaker, and inferior to others. This can lead to dire consequences, because they may take dangerous risks when they over-estimate their abilities or adopt dangerous behaviors if they dwell on their problems.

For better or worse, as our children become young adults their new cognitive abilities appear at the same time that they are struggling with insecurities about their changing appearance, identity, and life experiences. Most parents of teens have heard their kids say things like: “I hate you.” “You just can’t understand.” or “Get out of my life.” (maybe we even remember saying such things). These statements are easier to take if we remember that they come from the onset of an adult mind without the benefit of adult experience.

If you give them good information and let them make an informed decision, they may surprise you with a good choice.

Even so, parents may also struggle with the changes. The child you have been very close with may be distant. They used to listen to your guidance, but now question everything you say.  This is also a time where they may fiercely embrace or completely reject religion. These are natural occurrences in the individual’s pursuit of autonomy. You will have to accept a change in your role as a parent. However, it is still important for parents to continue to monitor behavior, choices, and decisions.

Your kids still need your love, guidance, and support to help them through these difficult circumstances. If you tell them what to do they may (probably will) reject your advice. If you give them good information and let them make an informed decision, they may surprise you with a good choice. Nonetheless, you must allow them to make some mistakes because that is how they (we) learn.

You may have to take a step back, but do stay involved with your child. Ask them about their life (this shows you care), but be prepared to get little response. Don’t pry too much or they may cut you off completely. Pick your battles, and don’t sweat the small stuff. Chances are they will be okay. After all, you survived adolescence, right?

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