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Abstract Ideas & Thinking in Adolescent Development Stages

by Flora Richards-Gustafson

As a young person’s body develops during the adolescent years, so does his brain. The forebrain, which is the most advanced part of the brain, is responsible for “higher-order” activities like reasoning and thinking, according to Clea McNeely and Jayne Blanchard in the Johns Hopkins University publication “The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development.” According to the authors, the developing temporal and frontal lobes, as well as the limbic system, change the way that adolescents perceive information, reason and think.

Brain Changes

As the forebrain’s prefrontal cortex connects more with an adolescent’s limbic system, the young person gains a greater ability to reason, coordinate emotions and develop her own personality. According to McNeely and Blanchard, the cerebrum’s limbic system is the “seat of emotions” and takes up about 20 percent of the brain’s volume. The limbic system helps an adolescent think about the consequences of taking risks during early adolescence. However, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and the ability to think about long-term consequences, the frontal lobe, matures during the later teen years. As the frontal lobe develops, a teen gains a better understanding of cause and effect, as well as the ability to empathize with others.

Cognitive Development

A child’s cognitive development refers to the way that he thinks, learns, solves problems and reasons. Before puberty, a child’s thinking is concrete and black-and-white. For example, he may associate terms like honesty, responsibility and friendship with objects, actions and events, but not ideas. During adolescence, the young person’s cognitive development allows him to understand and coordinate abstract ideas logically. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the online article “Ten Tasks of Adolescent Development,” an adolescent gains the ability to develop and try hypotheses, understand philosophies and plan ahead as he matures.

Exercising New Skills

As an adolescent gets better at thinking abstractly and developing new perspectives, it is normal for him to try out and exercise his new cognitive skills, in the form of arguing. According to the American Psychological Association’s publication “Developing Adolescents,” critical thinking leads a young person to contradict what he hears and jump to conclusions. Because the frontal lobe develops during the later teen years, a young adolescent can seem self-centered because the ability see things from different points of view doesn’t occur until later.

Risk-Taking

Risk-taking during adolescence is not necessarily a bad thing. As a young person learns to think abstractly, she may use risk-taking to resolve conflicts, serve her goals and make more sophisticated decisions, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The university explains that developmental milestones during adolescence happen gradually and changes in the adolescent brain may not stop until a person is at least 21 to 25 years old. While adolescents do not necessarily think that they are invincible, McNeely and Blanchard state that a teen’s risk-taking behaviors may stem from judging the benefits of certain actions differently than an adult. When a teen takes a risk and experiences a desired outcome, the emotional satisfaction that she feels is greater than the satisfaction of an adult who experiences the same risk and outcome. As a teen matures and her frontal lobe develops, the rewards that she perceives for taking risks prepare her for the challenges of adulthood.

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