Cognitive Development

Students in a classroom and in the library

General Cognitive Changes Adolescents Experience

Cognitive development refers to changes in the brain that prepare people to think and learn. Just as in early childhood, brains in adolescence undergo a lot of growth and development. These changes will reinforce adolescents’ abilities to make and carry out decisions that will help them thrive now and in the future. The brain grows and strengthens itself in three ways:

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Growing new brain cells. Adolescence is one of the few times in which the brain produces a large number of cells at a very fast rate. In fact, the brain creates many more cells than will be needed. The extra brain cells give adolescents more places to store information, which helps them learn new skills.

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Pruning some of the extra growth. The disadvantage of having extra brain cells is that they also decrease the brain’s efficiency. As adolescents go to school, live, and work, the brain trims down the extra growth based on the parts of the brain the adolescent actively uses. This pruning process creates a brain structure than enables adolescents to easily access the information they use most.

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Strengthening connections. The connections between brain cells are what enable the information stored in the brain to be used in daily life. The brain strengthens these connections by wrapping a special fatty tissue around the cells to protect and insulate them. These changes help adolescents recall information and use it efficiently.

As fast as the changes happen, these processes take time. Different sections of the brain develop at different times, with the part of the brain responsible for abstract thinking, planning, and decision making developing last. Overall, the brain is not fully developed and protected until people are in their mid-twenties. 

The changes in the adolescent brain affect adolescents’ thinking skills. Specifically, young people gain these advantages as the brain grows, prunes, and strengthens connections: 

Enhanced learning. New synapses, or gaps between nerve cells through which impulses are transmitted, make the adolescent brain a learning machine that can absorb facts, ideas, and skills.

Abstract thinking. Young children mostly understand only things that can be seen or touched. They may understand a portion of abstract ideas, such as love, justice, or fractions, but their understanding is of limited scope. As the brain develops in adolescence, a young person gains a broader understanding of more abstract ideas.  

Advanced reasoning. Children generally have limited reasoning that focuses on the information at hand. In contrast, adolescents can predict the results of their actions by using logic to imagine multiple options and different situations. This new ability helps young people plan for their future and consider how their choices will affect that future. 

Metacognition. Another new skill adolescents develop is “thinking about thinking”—or metacognition. This practice enables youth to reflect on how they came to an answer or conclusion. This new skill also helps adolescents think about how they learn best and find ways to improve how they absorb new information.  

Adolescence is an ideal time in a person’s life to gain and maintain new skills. The changes in the brain and how they shape a young person’s thinking help prepare adolescents for adult decision-making. Still, parents and other caring adults should remember that the teen brain is not fully developed. In particular, teens may struggle with impulse control and may be more likely to make decisions based on emotions than on logic. In addition, an adolescent’s thinking and decision-making processes may vary from day to day. By keeping these issues in mind, adults can provide the support adolescents need as their brains develop. 

Two teens working together on a geometry problem.

Unique Issues in Cognitive Development

Cognitive development, much like physical development, happens at a different pace for every adolescent. As a result, adolescents of the same age may not have the same thinking and reasoning skills. Additionally, brain development occurs at a different rate than physical development, which means that an adolescent’s thinking may not match the adolescent’s appearance. Here are some other factors that affect how adolescents’ brains develop and how adolescents think:

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Learning styles and multiple intelligences. Every adolescent learns and processes information in a different way. Adolescents may find that some academic subjects are easier for them to learn or are more interesting than others. Education theories suggest that presenting information and assessing learning in multiple ways - PDF helps young people with different learning styles

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Disabilities. A learning disability—such as auditory processing disorder, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)— can affect cognitive development. Challenges will differ based on the disability, but being aware of the issues can help adults link adolescents to the proper tools and resources so they can thrive. Furthermore, under the federal law, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), K-12 public schools must provide accommodations for students with disabilities, including learning disabilities. Parents also can support their children’s special learning. College students with disabilities can obtain supports through the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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Trauma. For some adolescents, brain development might be more difficult because of earlier or ongoing trauma. The brain reacts to the environment. Experiencing violence, neglect, or abuse can stunt brain growth. Being aware of trauma and its potential impact - PDF, whether in early childhood or in adolescence, and helping adolescents cope, can go a long way in improving young people’s well-being.

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Mental health disorders. Many mental health disorders first appear during adolescence, in part because of changes in physical brain development. An adolescent struggling with mental health challenges may have decreased motivation and have a harder time with cognitive tasks, such as planning and decision-making. Adults can support adolescents by watching out for mental health warning signs and providing teens who face mental health challenges with treatment. 

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Substance use. Substance use can greatly hinder adolescents’ potential by slowing and stunting brain development. The brain also is especially vulnerable to addiction at this stage of life. Use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs in the teen years is associated with increased risk for adult substance use disorders. In contrast, if teens abstain from certain substances (such as tobacco - PDF), they are less likely to use these substances as adults.

One of the biggest changes and challenges in adolescence is an increase in risk-taking. Cognitive development during adolescence predisposes young people to take more risks than adults, and taking risks is an important part of growing up. Trying new things gives adolescents the chance to have experiences that will help them make the transition to their independent adult lives, such as finding a career, starting their own family, or moving to new places. 

As adolescents’ brains develop and new cognitive skills emerge, the ability to reason and think through consequences takes a leap forward. In fact, adolescents can even match adults’ abilities in assessing risk, but adolescents do not always make the healthiest decisions because factors other than risk assessment, such as their emotions or the social rewards, come into play. Adults can help protect adolescents from unhealthy risks by being aware of these factors and creating environments that guide young people to healthy choices:

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Differing rewards. Because the back of the adolescent brain develops before the front, the parts of the brain that handle rewards form stronger connections before the parts that manage impulse control. This gap means that even if adolescents know the risks for the future, they may still place a higher value on a short-term reward. For example, if a young person attends a party where there is drinking, he or she may understand the risk of underage or binge drinking but value the reward of social acceptance more. 

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“Hot” vs “cold” cognition environments. Another element that affects adolescent decisions is whether they have to make a choice in a “hot” or “cold” environment. A “hot cognition” situation is one in which a decision needs to be made quickly or in the heat of the moment. A “cold cognition” situation is one in which adolescents have time to reflect and weigh their options. Hot cognition environments also tend to have more emotions tied to them. Adults can help adolescents to make positive decisions by encouraging them to think through situations in cold cognition environments and practice what to do in the heat of the moment.1

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Sensation seeking. Adolescents vary in how much risk they want to take. Some adolescents consciously seek out sensations, meaning that they greatly enjoy new, stimulating experiences and look for them. Looking for these experiences does not make them bad at decision-making or suggest that they will turn to negative health behaviors. Adults can support these adolescents by providing them with positive opportunities that challenge and stimulate them.  

Father or caring adult smiling with his two daughters

How Parents and Caring Adults Can Support Cognitive Development

Much of cognitive development is influenced by what is happening physically in adolescents’ brains. Still, parents and other caring adults can support optimal health and development by helping adolescents apply some of their new thinking abilities and offering support in the areas where the adolescent still has room to grow. Here are some ways parents and other adults working in healthcare, education, and community programs can help:

Ask open-ended questions on complex issues. Adolescents are eager to improve their abstract thinking skills. Asking probing questions, such as, “What did you think about [x event]?” or “How would you have approached [y situation] differently?” and following up with an adolescent in a nonjudgmental manner can jump-start an adolescent’s reasoning and abstract thinking skills. Adults can further engage adolescents in developing aspects of higher cognition by giving them opportunities to plan and organize events.  For example, a parent may ask an adolescent to plan a specific family activity. 

Help adolescents consider consequences of actions at multiple time points. Adolescents sometimes have difficulty weighing future risks versus immediate rewards, especially in the heat of the moment. By asking adolescents to think through the pros and cons of various actions both in the short term and long term, adults can help adolescents to improve their future-thinking capacity. For example, ask an adolescent to think about the benefits and drawbacks of staying up late with friends versus going to sleep earlier on a school night.

Provide more learning opportunities that entail healthy risks. Taking risks can be healthy and promote growth. Healthy risks can include trying a new activity such as a new sport or art project, taking challenging classes, or getting involved with the community. Encouraging healthy risks and distinguishing them from negative risks (like substance use or driving dangerously) can give adolescents skills needed to assess and cope with risk.

Encourage healthy sleep habits. Adolescents need a lot of sleep so their brains can function well. During sleep, the brain aids in memory and learning functions. A good night’s rest also is associated with improvements in focus and energy and is a protective factor against depression, anxiety, and substance use. Experts recommend that teens get eight to 10 hours of sleep a night, but less than 30 percent of high school students report getting at least eight hours of sleep.2 Brain changes shift an adolescent’s sleep cycle, and for many adolescents, it is hard to fall asleep before 11 p.m. However, the average school start time is at 8 a.m. This combination of staying up late and getting up early makes it difficult for adolescents to get the amount of rest they need. Parents can help adolescents build healthy sleep habits by setting routines and encouraging practices such as limiting electronic devices in the bedroom.

Promote injury prevention. Help adolescents protect their brain during a time of rapid and crucial development. Adolescents should be encouraged to take safety precautions to prevent concussions and other brain injuries. These precautions include always wearing a seatbelt when driving and a helmet when participating in sports and outdoor activities such as biking, skating, skiing, or rock-climbing. Furthermore, if an adolescent does participate in a team sport, parents, coaches, and other caring adults should understand the risks and learn how to spot potential brain injuries. 

Seek out opportunities for teens to engage as learners. A great way for adolescents to learn and improve their cognitive abilities is for them to look for opportunities to put their new skills to the test in a leadership capacity. Adolescents can find learning and leadership activities that help them develop foresight, vision, and planning skills through their schools, extracurricular activities, communities, or at home. Parents and other caring adults can suggest different activities and facilitate adolescents’ participation (e.g., by helping them find a way to get to and from a club). 

Support adolescents with learning disabilities. If parents think an adolescent is struggling academically, they should make sure the adolescent is screened. The earlier a professional can diagnose a learning disability, the sooner the young person can receive assistance. Furthermore, adults can work with schools - PDF and healthcare providers to make sure students with learning disabilities have the skills and support they need for success.  

Cover image for Adolescent Development Explained guide

Adolescent Development Explained Guide

Additional information on adolescent development can be found in the Adolescent Development Explained guide – PDF, developed by the Office of Population Affairs.

Webinar Slides for "Becoming and Adult"

Becoming an Adult (Adolescent Development Explained Webinar Series)

In this webinar, experts explore how the mind and body change during adolescence. Watch the recording on YouTube or review the slides – PDF.

Footnotes

1 Arain, M., Haque, M., Johal, L., Mathur, P., Nel, W., Rais, A., …Sharma, S. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 9, 449-461. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621648/ back to top

2 Kann, L., McManus, T., Harris, W. A., Shanklin, S. L., Flint, K. H., Queens, B., … Ethier, K. A. (2018). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2017. Surveillance Summaries, 67(8), 1-114. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/ss/ss6708a1.htm?s_cid=hy-yrbs2017-mmwr back to top