Friday, August 20, 2010

Understanding the thinking adolescent

St. Luke’s Health Watch


Watching our children grow is an amazing thing. Many milestones occur along the way, such as a specific day or event like a first word or first step or the first day of school. Milestones can also come in gradual processes of the various aspects of growing and maturing. One of the most significant milestones is the process of adolescence. Adolescence is the span of years when a child transforms into an adult. This process involves physical and emotional growth and development, including puberty, which is the maturation of the reproductive system.

Parents might notice the seemingly sudden changes in a child's physical growth when shopping for school clothes this month. Growth spurts are a big part of adolescence and are a visible indicator that our children are growing up. Other obvious physical indicators of adolescence are voice changes and the appearance of body hair.

Though not visible, the cognitive changes of adolescence are also quite significant. Parents may dread the forewarned teen moodiness and "raging hormones." The cognitive changes that occur throughout the adolescent years are interesting, complex, and often confusing. Yet, these changes are important in the transformational process of becoming an adult. Understanding a little bit about how the teen mind works can go a long way in helping a teenager and his or her parents manage this time of major change.

During adolescence, the way a teen thinks, reasons, and learns, will change. Young children need to see and touch things to be convinced that they are real. Adolescents develop the mental capacity to understand and form opinions about things that are not physically tangible. Where a young child would see things as mostly black and white, or right and wrong, the teen now has thought processes to work through a problem from more than one point of view, with more than one action, and with a concept of what might be, instead of what is.

These cognitive changes allow young teens to learn more advanced and complicated material in school, to apply knowledge to the real world and to have the ability to consider a wider range of options in a decision-making process.

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Just as physical growth happens in spurts, mental changes also happen somewhat sporadically throughout the teen years. This can make it difficult to gauge a child's maturity level. Mental changes affect the teen intellectually as well as emotionally, and may affect the way a teenager communicates to peers and adults. The teen often recognizes that his or her own behavior is different, which can be confusing. Peers or adults may see this new behavior as challenging or confrontational.

Parents may see their teenager as being egotistical or selfish, as more time is spent focusing on appearance, popularity and self-interests. In fact, the teen is establishing a "sense of self," which is important in becoming a confident adult. Ideally, this identity formation will translate into skills and self-confidence to navigate through the adult world of jobs, relationships, parenting and good decision making.

During this time, it is important for adolescents to explore a range of possible phases, or identities, as they consider who they are and who they want to be as an adult. Parents may find it frustrating and difficult to keep up with a seemingly endless stream of fads and phases. Some studies suggest, however, that children who don't go through this identity-formation phase may be at greater risk of depression in their adult years.

Adolescents are learning to be able to think more like adults, but they still do not have the experience that is needed to act like adults. As a result, their behavior may be out of step with their ideas. A parent who is aware of the facts may be better equipped to keep the lines of communication intact and talk with his or her child with respect, understanding and a healthy dose of patience.

Erin Buell is the community outreach coordinator for St. Luke's Community Health.

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