Cognitive development through puberty

 With my oldest son the first sign of puberty was when he could not stop himself from making sarcastic comments in most interactions with him. He especially enjoyed taunting his younger brother. This was very unlike him and at some stage I asked him why he is so sarcastic and argumentative and his response was that he needed to practice comebacks for when he is with friends.  He never really [restricted] had big emotional outburst and became only more moody when he reached the age of 17 that correlated with him starting a romantic relationship.

His brother on the other hand had the emotional intensity first and we had to live through many phases when he became passionate about a specific thing and would stubbornly cling to his viewpoint despite an avalanche of information to the contrary!

In the article by Robin Nixon, Adolescent Angst, she quotes Johnson and Feinstein :“Due to the increase in brain matter, the teen brain becomes more interconnected and gains processing power. Adolescents start to have the computational and decision-making skills of an adult – if given time and access to information, she said.

But in the heat of the moment, their decision-making can be overly influenced by emotions, because their brains rely more on the limbic system (the emotional seat of the brain) than the more rational prefrontal cortex.”

I think this is the difficult part for parents. When their 9 year old starts arguing about things that yesterday was not an issue, and then becoming emotional when you can’t agree. As Dahl says in the article: Beyond Raging Hormones “Some changes in the maturing adolescent brain are completely independent of puberty (or its timing). In particular, crucial aspects of cognitive development (such as the ability to reason, plan, and understand long-term consequences) seem to follow a trajectory relatively independent of puberty and continue to show some refinements long after puberty is over.”

This makes it tricky as a parent as you might not understand where the behavior is coming from, as there might not be any physical signs of puberty visible yet.

Dahl further says: “We have made the point that changes in adolescent brain systems that are specifically linked to puberty have their primary effects on motivation and emotion. These changes manifest as mood swings, increased conflict with parents, a greater tendency for risk taking and rule breaking, an increased draw toward novel experiences and strong sensations, alterations in sleep/arousal regulation, and an increased risk of emotional disorders (particularly depression in adolescent girls). Last, but certainly not least, are the alterations in romantic and sexual interests, which are also more closely linked to puberty than to age.”

During this time as a parent you might feel that you can have serious discussions about certain challenging areas and the child will be able to cognitively argue the points with a good understanding of options and consequences but in the moment it happens the emotions will take over and they will still make mistakes and become very upset.

As Bethany Brookshire states in, The adolescent brain: “It's not a question of intellectual maturity. Most studies show that abstract reasoning, memory, and the formal capacity for planning are fully developed by age 15 or 16.

In real life, adolescents, compared to adults, find it more difficult to interrupt an action under way (stop speeding); to think before acting (learn how deep the water is before you dive); and even to choose between safer and riskier alternatives. It is easy for them to say that they would not get into a car with a drunk driver, but more difficult to turn down the invitation in practice. Adolescents' judgment can be overwhelmed by the urge for new experiences, thrill-seeking, and sexual and aggressive impulses. “

Dahl mentions: “Earlier timing of puberty, as we are observing now, activates more rapid development in only some of these dimensions. Accelerating the intensity of some emotional and motivational tendencies at an earlier point in cognitive development and experience may create a situation that is, metaphorically, like revving the engine without a skilled driver.”

I think this is the important bit to remember. They might have the cognitive abilities to think through consequences while they are calm but as a parent you need to have strong values and boundaries in place to guide them in situations when they will not be thinking straight. And remember it is not personal. Breaking out of the cocoon to become a butterfly must be a struggle. That is the only way to become stronger and fly.


1 Response

  1. […] Cognitive development through puberty […]

  2. I like the metaphor of the butterfly having to struggle to get out of the cocoon to be strong and fly. If we take the struggle away and slit the cocoon open, the butterfly won’t develop and learn to fly and live.

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