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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Injugu

What are they thinking?

How your teen is developing their thoughts

By Catherine Karega| Updated April 11, 2023

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The main tool for thinking is the human brain. It is complex and researchers have yet to understand it all. What is known though is that as we grow so do various parts of the brain. As long as development is not impeded in any way by accidents or ailments, the various parts of the brain develop in a healthy manner and so does our ability to process information and think.

How does the brain process information?

Your brain is constantly working to make sense of what is going on. But it only has a certain number of clues to work from. It takes information from your body (e.g heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, hormones). It takes information from each of your senses- what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. This sensory information enters the brain as electrical impulses.

Through a series of processing and filtering based on previous experiences, sensory data is transferred through various stages of memory. The brain pieces together all these clues with memories of when you have felt similar in the past and makes a suggestion, a best guess about what is happening and what you do about it. That guess can sometimes be felt as an emotion or a mood.

Threats and emotions such as fear of the unknown, anger, or joy affect memory processing and can signal the brain to strengthen a memory. Whether a memory is stored over the long term is impacted by the sense or meaning associated with the event. The meaning we make of that emotion and how we respond to it sends information back to the body and mind about what to do next. If an event has a greater meaning by reminding you of a personal experience, then you are likely to remember the details of the event.

For instance, any group of Kenyans can remember their high school experience in an instant if you bring it up. Maybe it was the horrible food, the comical teachers, the dirty toilets or the mundane routine. Most of us recall this period of our lives with feelings of anger, fear, joy, or confusion. We have strong memories of high school because they were meaningful. Whether the meaning was positive or negative is a different conversation.

Our long term storage of memories forms the basis of our cognitive belief system. The cognitive belief system portrays how we see the world. Because no two of us have the same data in our long term storage, no two of us perceive the world in exactly the same way. People can put the same experiences together in many different areas. There are areas of agreement and points of diversion.

Recalling highschool again, we may all agree that it was no five star dining experience. However, you might have thought the food was horrible if you came from a background where food was abundant and it was made with some flavor and care. For a fellow classmate, the food might not have been that bad because they had a consistent supply of 3 hot meals a day compared to back home where food was scarce and supply uncertain.

What are they thinking?

Both parents and teachers I have interacted with have asked this question. Teens can come off as overwhelming especially when we do not seem to know what they are thinking.

As we get older our thinking becomes more complex. We are able to entertain more ideas and alternative views at the same time. Consequently, we are able to change our views as the situation calls for it. This means we are able to learn new ways of thinking and in turn we can change how we feel about one thing or event.

This is thanks to what Piaget called formal operational thinking. Our ability to think and reason expands to include hypothetical situations and what-if possibilities about the world. Formal operational thought begins in adolescence and stays with us all the way into adulthood. It is enhanced by experiences, culture and environmental stimuli typical in life. This new phase also includes the development of adolescent egocentrism.

David Elkind describes this as adolescents’ inability to distinguish between their perceptions of what others think of them and what people actually think in reality. This may explain why adolescents tend to mostly focus on their own perceptions, especially on their behaviors and appearance. This also leads them to believe that people are as attentive to their behaviors and appearance as they are of themselves.

Egocentrism results in 2 distinct problems in thinking;

  1. The imaginary audience which is a phenomenon where a teen anticipates the reactions of other people to them in actual or impending social situations. This audience is imaginary because in actual social situations individuals are not typically the sole focus of everyone’s attention.

  2. The personal fable is where teens believe that their own feelings are unique and they are special and immortal. This leads to the feeling that no one can understand their feelings because they have had a unique and diverse emotional experience that no one else has.

These beliefs typically lead to the illusion of being above the rules, discipline and laws that apply to others. This feeling of being unique and invincible may also contribute to more risk-taking behavior such as experimenting with drugs, putting oneself in dangerous situations and even suicidal ideation.

It’s not all bad though. As they expand their thinking, teens also demonstrate great creativity, they are able to think more globally and even introspect. This can lead them to question the rules and come up with different ideas about how we can think of our set ways of life. They also begin to form their own values and formulate new meanings that personalize their experiences to themselves. They grow!

Thoughts, emotions and actions are intricately related. Especially during adolescence, this relationship can seem very heightened. This month we will talk more about the relationship between thoughts, emotions, actions and body sensations. These are fundamental in understanding mental health and how simple things have a great impact on our psychological wellbeing.

How can you manage egocentrism in a positive way

There is no one answer for how to do this but studies have shown that teens need love and support even when we do not necessarily agree with their choices and ideas. Try the following techniques for managing your child's behavior during adolescence and beyond.

* Connect with your kids- Finding a way to connect with them can help you feel empathetic and loving toward them.

* Think of your own adolescence- The stressors may have been different from what your teen is experiencing now. However, you could relate to some aspects such as peer pressure, feeling above the rules or thinking no one understands you. Recalling your own adolescence may help you develop empathy towards the changes your teen is experiencing.

*Consider that this may be temporary- While this stage may seem to stretch forever consider that adolescence passes as your kids get older. Your kids may emerge as healthy adults if this stage is handled with grace, kindness and understanding.

* Be open- Even if you have gone through the same experiences, be open to listening to their version of events with an open mind.

* Get support from other adults- Connect with other parents and discover how they have helped or hindered their children's changes during a similar time.

By Catherine Karega, MA Clinical Psychology


Sources

1. Cognitive Development during Adolescence | Lifespan Development. (n.d.). Lumen Learning. Retrieved April 5, 2023, from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-lifespandevelopment/chapter/cognitive-development-during-adolescence/

2. Feldman, B. L. (2017). How Emotions Are Made. The Secret Life of The Brain. Pan MacMillan.

3. Ramsey, A. (n.d.). Cognitive Development in Children | Advice for Parents. Cincinnati Children's Hospital. Retrieved April 5, 2023, from https://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/health/c/cognitive

4. Smith, J. (2022). Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before. HarperOne.



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