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How Adolescents Think

Feb 28, 2019

How Adolescents Think:

Most of us assume that others around us think pretty much the way we do. This simple fact is evidenced by a parent saying to their child “what were you thinking’? This statement implies that you believe that the child follows the same logic as you but for some unexplained but knowable reason has deviated from the path in this instance. The most common answer given by the child in this scenario is “I don’t know”. Parents often become more frustrated or even enraged by this answer, but what if I told you that the child is telling the absolute truth. Most parents would say “oh, come on of course the child knows what they were thinking”. Actually, that is an egocentric belief and statement.

Before we go any further let me define what egocentrism means from a developmental psychology perspective. It does not mean the person is being conceited or narcissistic. Egocentrism was a term used by Jean Piaget describing the inability of individuals to understand that others have perceptual realities that differ from their own. For example, a little baby will cry in the middle of the night and not have any concern for how many people the baby wakes up. This is not because the baby is mean or manipulative; the child simply does not have the ability to understand that this could be inconvenient for the rest of the house. Most families, by the age of two, have transitioned out of the child waking others up to meet their needs; because the child has learned how to delay the gratification of their needs until a more appropriate time. This is the beginning of the development of the Ego which allows the person to reality test and delay need gratification. Egocentrism is a core concept to understand how development happens and how individuals change their perceptions during the process. Individuals are ruled by egocentrism at birth, then it abates in childhood, only to return with a vengeance during adolescence but I am getting ahead of myself.

Getting back to the earlier example, the child has said that they did not know what they are thinking and the parent has become frustrated by this statement. The child, however, is telling the absolute truth. How do I know? Because to be able to know what you are thinking requires the development of another skill called metacognition. Metacognition simply means thinking about thinking. While the development of this skill is a continuum most developmental psychologists do not believe that we become good at using metacognition until age 11-13. So children younger than this would struggle with or not be able to respond to the question “what are you thinking?” because they would not know. This is just one example of how assuming that our children think like us is developmentally inaccurate. Here is an article that explains a bit more about metacognition.

So one way in which adolescent think is that they are actually capable of thinking about what they are thinking. This skill makes them better able to think logically and abstractly. So I can hear the cries of joy from adolescent parents everywhere that they can have great logical conversations with their adolescent children that will result in them accepting your superior wisdom. If only it were that easy. While adolescents do think more about their own thinking and can think more logically and abstractly we still need to consider our old friend egocentrism. Remember that we are all born completely ruled by egocentrism without any ability to understand perceptions that are not ours. By age 6 this has mostly subsided as we develop and grow our ego strength and integrity. But during adolescence, this egocentrism returns and brings with it a couple of friends called the imaginary/perceived audience and the personal fable. The imaginary audience is the perception that drives teens to think that every one of their peers is overly obsessed with thinking about and judging them. The personal fable refers to the tendency of adolescents to misperceive the possible negative consequences of their behavior and to act in ways that are consistent with an imaginary script they carry in their minds.

We all can relate to the phenomenon of the concept of the imaginary audience. We have seen depictions in the media or experienced firsthand an adolescent who is hyper-focused on how others perceive them. We may even remember how we ourselves felt super self-conscious during our own adolescent years, absolutely convinced that every one of our peers was hyper-focused on us just waiting for us to make one misstep so that it could be exposed for the rest of the world to see. And yet if the concept of adolescent egocentrism is correct then each one of our peers would have been so focused on themselves and their public image that they would not have had the time or resources to be even seeing us, much less judging.  Don’t you wish you would have had this knowledge when you were in high school? So every adolescent is hyper-focused on themselves but convinced that every other person is focused on them, quite the catch 22 isn’t it? Today we can even see the reach of this kind of adolescent egocentrism well into adulthood and even middle-age and beyond. How so you ask? Well, think about the technology we all carry around with us. I do not mean to be disparaging but if you have ever taken a pic of your meal and posted it on social media, that is an example of the imaginary audience. How much has it become just a ubiquitous part of life to upload pics of our day to the internets? There will come a time when we will have to explore how our technology is influencing us and our development and this is only one example, but it is irrefutable that said tech is allowing us to extend adolescent egocentrism far beyond the teen years.

If I had a dollar for every time a client said to me “we tell him not to drink and drive all the time.” I can assure you I would be retired and living in a tropical paradise. But here we are in my office talking about the adolescent’s recent charge for driving under the influence. When I ask the adolescent about why they drove after drinking they will inevitably say ‘Well I didn’t have that much and I didn’t think anything bad would happen.” At which point the parent, while looking incredulous, says “what about all the times we told you not to do it?” What the parent does not appreciate is that the child is telling the absolute truth and therefore has no way of seeing the incongruence of the situation. The adolescent child is suffering from the influence of the personal fable. They are acting in complete congruence with their perception of a prewritten script that they carry around in their heads. The adolescent actually believes that they did not drink enough to be intoxicated and that there could not be anyway from them to suffer a negative consequence because of their behavior. The real downfall in this scenario is the parent’s typical response to the adolescent’s behavior and thinking. The adolescent is thinking in completely developmentally appropriate ways. They are in the throes of adolescent egocentrism. This is a teachable moment for parents. The most appropriate and effective response would be to allow the adolescent to feel the full brunt of the consequence while educating them that even if they do not perceive their behavior as inappropriate they are still responsible for the consequences of their actions. All too often the parent’s response is to get the adolescent an attorney, at the parent's expense, who has the charge reduced and the adolescent often experiences little or no hardship. In this case, the adolescent learns nothing. Here is an article with more on adolescent egocentrism.

The takeaway message here is that children and adolescents think differently than adults at a fundamental level. Approaching these individuals as if they possess all of the cognitive skills and abilities as an adult does them a disservice and can even be detrimental. Yet once we maturate out of these developmental stages it is often difficult to think like someone from an earlier developmental period.