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Changes in teens' thinking processes

This fact sheet is part of the Teen talk: A survival guide for parents of teenagers series.

Teens are undergoing changes in their thinking, or cognitive, processes. Cognition refers to the thought processes occurring within the brain.

Improved thinking skills

By the age of 15 or 16, teens have the same thinking abilities as adults. Their overall brain functions are still not mature, however. (There's more information on that below.) There are three basic areas where teens' thinking has grown during childhood:

  • Reasoning. This includes an ability to think about options, to challenge long-held ideas, and to consider possibilities.

  • Abstract thinking. This is the ability to think about objects, principles, and ideas that are not physically present. It's the opposite of concrete thinking, which is focused on facts in the here and now, physical objects, and literal definitions.

  • The ability to "think about thinking". This is the ability to step outside yourself and consider your own, and others', thoughts about something.

Teens may use their advanced thinking skills to challenge parents and test out and explore new ideas. Teens need help learning to express their ideas and challenge others in appropriate ways. As a parent, you should understand that teens' expression of new ideas is part of normal development.

You needn't view this behavior as defiant. But you should be concerned if the challenges are frequent or disrespectful. Or if they're accompanied by acting out or other problem behaviors.

What parents can do

Teens might be better able to think about a problem and come up with possible solutions than when they were younger. But there's an important difference between teens' and adults' thinking processes. Because teens' brain functions are still not mature, they may still have trouble solving problems and making decisions. Here's what you can do to help your teen think through issues they encounter in daily life:

  • Engage your teen in frequent conversations and explorations of ideas and information.

  • Within reason, tolerate your teen's choice of words that might seem disrespectful. Remember that your teen is still learning how to express their thoughts.

  • Model how to express different viewpoints in a respectful way by carefully choosing your own words.

  • If necessary, set basic rules for conversations. This will help both you and your teen respect each others' views.

  • Withhold judgment. Don't put down or criticize ideas your teen expresses as "crazy" or "impossible." Instead, ask your teen how he or she came to their conclusions. Also encourage your teen to think through alternatives.

Related resources

The Teen Years ExplainedClea McNeely, PhD and Jayne Blanchard — This e-book can help both teens and adults to understand developmental changes and tips for how to apply this knowledge to your everyday life.

Colleen Gengler, Extension educator emerita in family relations

Reviewed by Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in Family Social Science

Reviewed in 2018

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