Parenting Guild

Understanding Changes in Thinking

How Do Teens Think?
Children are often self-centered (egocentric) in their thinking. This is as true of teenagers as it is of small infants. From about age 7 or 8 to 11 or 12, this egocentric thinking works in a certain way.
  • Children of this age are quite simply convinced their beliefs are correct.
  • They do not understand beliefs are the result of a thinking process and can be arrived at differently.
  • They assume that their beliefs are correct and that these are the only beliefs held and shared by all people.
  • If they learn new information that contradicts their beliefs, they will find a way to integrate that information into their beliefs rather than alter them. An example is a child who believes in Santa will interpret a forbidden glimpse of Mom wrapping Christmas presents as Mom's attempt to help out overworked Santa.
As children grow toward the teenage years, they begin to think in a different egocentric way. It is this new way of thinking that often causes problems in their relationships with parents.

At about age 11 or 12, children:
  • begin to realize that beliefs are the result of a thinking process
  • come to understand other people think too, and their own beliefs on a certain subject may differ from those of others
  • may understand others have different ideas about the same topics, yet they still do not understand that other people may think about different topics altogether.

Thinking About Self

Teens' Preoccupation With Self
To young adolescents, the subject of greatest interest is themselves. Since young adolescents do not distinguish between what others may be thinking and what they are thinking themselves, they assume every other person is as concerned with their behavior and appearance as they are. So when Mary, for example, sees two of her girlfriends whispering in the school hallway, she "knows" they are talking about her. Or when Jeff sees his parents looking his way, he is certain they are looking at him. Therefore, the hours young adolescents spend in front of the mirror or worrying about pimples are self-admiring or self-critical. They are also satisfying the "audience" they are certain is always watching.

Parents often find teens' preoccupation with themselves rather annoying, selfish and unhealthy. This preoccupation with the self is the result of the young teen's style of thinking. This style of thinking occurs in all teens and is not deliberate. Also, teens' concern with what others think is not entirely unjustified. Young teens are, in fact, very critical of one another and pay attention to details.

Fads -- Part of Teens' Self-Image
Following fads appears to play an important role in achieving a positive self-image for teens; approval from friends can be gained by a teen who looks and acts "right". So while parents may veto some fads as too costly or unhealthy, they may be wise to permit others as that can help the teen develop self-confidence and improve the parent/child relationship.

Teens' Feelings of Uniqueness
Young teens think everyone is interested in them and that they are very special. This feeling of uniqueness is demonstrated when teens indicate that no one has ever before felt as they do, suffered so much, loved so deeply or been so misunderstood.

A teen may say, "You don't understand!" A parent may find it helpful to respond, "I may not understand, but I'm sorry you are unhappy. If you want me to, I'll be glad to try to help." In this way, the parent can express caring without having to argue over whether or not they "understand". In addition, the teen can ask for help if it's wanted.

The Magical Thinking of Teens -- "It Will Never Happen to Me"
Young adolescents believe in a kind of personal magic that will protect them from the bad things that happen to other people. Belief in this magic may make a girl think she can't get pregnant or a boy think he can safely drive in a daredevil manner. Parents who understand this kind of thinking can take steps to protect young teens from dangers they ignore.

While no perfect solution exists for the problem, many parents find it helpful to give teens greater responsibility in non-dangerous areas (like selecting clothes or determining bedtime) while retaining control over more important and potentially harmful situations. It also helps to try to keep a sense of humor!

Thinking About Values

Questioning of Beliefs
During early adolescence, when teens come to understand there exist points of view other than their own and their family's, preteens/teens may begin to question their religion, their parents' political beliefs and other values. There may be a sudden refusal to go to religious services with the family, accompanied by statements like, "I don't believe in that anymore".

Seeing the Picture as Only Black or White
At an earlier age, children can only love and hate real people and things. Now they are capable of loving and hating ideas, such as justice and dishonesty. Consequently, they may become extremely critical of parents. The parent who parks in a no parking zone for two minutes while picking up the drycleaning may be accused of dishonesty by a child. Sweeping statements may be made, such as, "Don't talk to me about honesty! You're dishonest, and I'm not going to listen to you anymore."

Allowing for Growth and Development
Many parents have found it is impossible to make teens of this age think as they do. On the other hand, it is possible for parents to simply express their beliefs and refuse to get into a debate.

Parents can respond by saying, "This is what I believe. I would like it if you would believe the same things, but you have a right to your beliefs, too. When you are older, we can discuss some of these things. In the meantime, you will go to services with the family (if that's what you want the teen to do) because I believe we should all go together. I expect you to come along and be respectful."

Most parents find they can get a teen to cooperate by allowing the teen a minor victory in the situation (such as recognizing teens have a right to their own beliefs).

Maturing of Thought
Experts believe that by the time the young person is age 15 or 16, this kind of egocentrism gradually diminishes. Usually the more teens have a chance to talk about their personal ideas and listen to those of other teens, the sooner they arrive at a mature level of thinking.

At about this time, most teens begin to re-establish the warm relationship with parents that might have become strained during the early teen years. The goal is to establish a special relationship between two adults who are parent and child.

  • have a longer attention span (30 to 40 minutes) than younger children
  • are more willing to try new things
  • are better at planning than carrying the plan out
  • believe they have the right answer
  • are beginning to think in the abstract.
Adults should:
  • consistently give their reasons for the limits set
  • allow more control in decision making for teens within limits
  • give choices and discuss decision making regularly.
To discuss any concerns you have about your teen, call the Parent Line at 1-800-258-0808 (231-7923 in Fargo).

Adapted for use in North Dakota by DonnaRae Jacobson, family science specialist, NDSU Extension Service, from a publication written by Judith O. Hooper, assistant professor of family studies, University of Wisconsin-Extension. Re-printed from Parenting Pipeline. Used with permission.
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