Cognitive Development — How Adolescents Think
Adolescence seems to be a very troublesome stage, especially for parents. After reaching puberty and becoming more aware of their surroundings, adolescents will begin trying to break away from their parents’ influence and begin developing into their own person.
Adolescents begin to develop abstract reasoning skills. It is during this part of life that humans, as teenagers, are capable of exploring abstract thoughts. Along with trying to figure out who and what they are, adolescents begin to criticize others as well as themselves. They begin to spot hypocrisy in other people, especially their parents, leading to many typical fights between parents and adolescents.
In the past, the stunning shifts in moods displayed by most teens were often attributed simply to “raging hormones.” Recently, researchers have utilized brain scan technology to demonstrate that these shifting emotions have little or nothing to do with hormones and everything to do with changes in the brain itself. During adolescence, the brain goes through a period of neural growth and pruning. Some connections are strengthened and reinforced, while others are pruned. The last areas of the brain to undergo these changes are the parts associated with cognitive functioning, such as a person's ability to reason, solve problems, and make decisions. Experts believe that this process is not complete until people reach their mid-twenties. Is it any wonder, then, that teens and young adults are so prone to poor judgment when the part of their brains associated with this ability is still maturing?
Adolescents also start developing a sense of morality, learning to distinguish right from wrong, and developing their character around their choices. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) examined the moral development of children and adolescents and placed them in three general categories. The first stage, he suggests, is the preconventional morality. In this first stage, children, or adolescents even, will only obey the rules and choose to do right to either avoid punishment or gain a reward for acting “good.” This stage mostly applies to children under nine years of age.
The second stage, the conventional morality stage, is the stage in which adolescents will begin to uphold laws because they understand the concept of rules and that they should be obeyed. This is also the stage in which adolescents start doing good out of caring for others. In this stage, acceptance in the social order by doing good is key. If an adolescent chooses to do wrong, he will not be accepted by the social order as a positive influence and therefore will either be punished accordingly or pushed to the outside of the group.
Adolescence is a period in which, although much of your moral thinking is developed, you may not choose to follow the voice in your head solely due to the decisions being made around you by your peers. Studies have shown that although teenagers have a set of standards, they may cross these in order to fit into the crowd.
The third and final stage of moral thought processes is postconventional morality. This is an advanced stage (most likely not reached by very early adolescence) in which an adolescent will act according to her own basic ethical principles. This stage is fully separated from parents, friends, and authoritative figures, although these people may have had an influence on the child's development. This is the stage where adolescents make decisions based solely on their ideals in their own mind. However, many psychologists have debated over the postconventional level, saying this level is only blatant in adolescents raised in Western countries that promote individualism.
Differences in Moral Development
There are differences in moral development between boys and girls. Some interesting research by Carol Gilligan (1936– ) suggests that, in general, girls develop a different kind of morality than boys do. In Kohlberg's research, he utilized a scenario known as the “Heinz dilemma,” in which a man must decide whether to steal medicine to save his dying wife. In this scenario, girls tended to move toward an ethic of caring — what is “right” means what is good for people and relationships, even if it stretches the law. Boys at an equivalent stage believe that “right” means how closely behavior adheres to the law, or rules that govern society. While Kohlberg identifies decisions based on caring as an inferior stage of development, Gilligan argues that girls and boys are equally developed in their moral understanding, but that because women in our culture are generally responsible for caretaking and men for defending life and property, they develop along parallel but different tracks. Of course, this is an overgeneralization in both cases, but it bears thinking about.