Poor Parenting and Cognitive Development- Part 1 of 2 on Cognitive Development

Parents and other adults often have seemingly deep and wise conversations with teenagers about teenagers place and roles in daily life and their future. They can converse about compelling dreams and ambitions for school and careers. Teenagers seem to concentrate on and integrate the wisdom of experience offered by adults of what it takes to achieve their goals. They ask relevant questions and nod affirmatively as adults point out options and challenges in the journeys ahead of them. Warned of temptations that might waylay them, teenagers can profess the highest principles and morals at times reassuring to adults.

  • “You gotta give people respect.”
  • “Ain’t gonna get anywhere without hard work.”
  • “Treat other people how you want to be treated.”
  • “Sometimes, you just need to do the right thing even though you don’t get rewarded for it.”
  • “You have to honor your word.”
  • “Lying and cheating is messed up.”

And then, within the same conversation, later that night, the next day, at some function, or over the school year, they do or say something completely contradictory. They say something rude and insulting to you or others, try to get away with minimal effort or skip the work altogether, mistreat others despite complaints about being mistreated themselves, only act in their self-interests or specifically if they get something out of it, change their minds if they get a better offer, or purposely mislead, omit, deceive, as well as outright lie and cheat when the opportunity is available. They can talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk of high values and personal accountability to others. The ideas- in particular the idealistic expectations and standards they can verbally repeat and claim to believe in, somehow seem disconnected from the choices and actions they practice.   The apparent hypocrisy of teenagers can be confounding to adults. High ideals seem to be disconnected to action. When they were younger, children were impulsive and focused on the here and now. What was ok or not ok… what got them into trouble or not… was very practical or functional. However over the years, they had learned lessons about fairness, respect, and responsibility that were tied to their choices and behavior. Or, did they? What gives?

Cognitive Development

Adult awareness of developmental differences lead to different expectations for not just infant, child, vs. adolescent behaviors but also for how they think about and process the world. Piaget’s theories of cognitive development denote four stages of cognitive growth and functioning: sensorimotor stage, pre-operational stage, concrete operations stage, and formal operations stage.

Sensorimotor Stage: The first is the sensorimotor stage. Approximately the first two years of babies’ lives, infants and toddlers are busy discovering relationships between their bodies and the environment. They develop through experiencing and learning about the world through their senses and motor movements. Touching, feeling, smelling, hearing, tasting, and otherwise sensing everything around them. In their exploration of the environment, they also begin to experiment with things, including the people who care for them. It’s noteworthy that although this is known as the sensorimotor stage, people are somewhat to highly sensorimotor throughout their lives. Exploring the world through ones senses remains relevant throughout life. Moreover, learning and savoring the world through the senses can be highly stimulating to some people. The smell of Christmas, soaking in a hot tub, the massive sensory stimulation (over-stimulation) of a rock concert, savoring the bouquet of fine wine… and even the high of stimulant drugs can be enticing habitual or highlighting experiences. In fact, the drive for sensorimotor stimulation may be considered characteristic of some problematic adolescent… and adult behaviors.

Preoperational Stage: Roughly considered to be between eighteen months or so to about seven years old, toddlers and young children rapidly develop intellectually. In addition to their continued sensory exploration and experimentation of their worlds, they start to develop and use language. They start to understand the meanings of objects: mom, dad, dog, cat, spoon, etc. The world is not merely concrete but with language has representations through symbolic meanings. For example, the vocalization “cat” is not a cat but is symbolic of the animal. Saying “cat” initially may be representative of any number of meanings: “That’s a cat.” “I want to hold the cat.” “I want to pet the cat.” “Where is the cat?” “There’s the cat.” “I’m scared of the cat!” Children start acting upon the world to manipulate events, well as overtly act to make things happen. Besides reaching for and picking up a desired toy (an overt act), they may whine, look an adult in the eye, and gesture towards the toy- thus, communicating for the adult to retrieve and give the toy to him or her. Earlier in life, they do not have the cognitive develop to use things symbolically. For example, they need to use a telephone to pretend to speak on the telephone. Later as they cognitively develop, they can treat objects as symbolic of other things. A block, a pencil, or their hands held to their ears become symbolic of holding a phone and talking to grandma.

Gradually accruing experiences, children in this stage start to develop memory and imagination. This facilitates developing operations (how things operate), including how things are linked together and what caused something to happen, and to imagine what will happen. Memory from experiences allows them to understand the difference between past and future (Now and Not Now!). They can use memories to imagine possibilities- thus, can engage in make-believe. However, their thinking is largely intuitive and still not completely logical. They have trouble understanding more challenging concepts such as cause and effect, time, and comparison. As young children begin to better understand how the world works, they are not necessarily committed to fine articulated rules and concepts. Good or bad are absolute and exclusive- relative good or bad with sophisticated differentiations and qualifications are often very confusing. Extended and nuanced adult explanations may be met with a blank look, and the simple query, “Is it ok or not?” While this stage runs supposedly til about seven years old, many older children, teenagers, and adults will also give you a blank look and inquire, “Does that mean it’s ok or not?” How is it that supposedly mature, cognitively advanced, and capable individuals fail to understand such feedback or instruction?

Stage of Magical Thinking

Substituting for Piaget’s terminology- basically, replacing “operations” with the word “rules” offers insight to the infant’s processing. The infant begins to develop his or her sense of the rules of how the world works. However, at the early stage of pre-operational thinking, which can be seen as the pre-rules stage, the world is magical. It is not clear to the infant how and why things occur in the world. Much of the infant’s nascent logic is based on association of paired experiences rather seeing a true causal effect. This is associative logic which is that two things that are associated with one another have some causal relationship. For example, if daddy sneezes and coincidentally the doorbell rings, the young child’s new rule of the world is that “Daddy’s sneezes make the doorbell ring!” In this stage, the child makes up many rules, called schema by Piaget that may be objectively illogical and the source of great humor to adults, and sometimes of great anxiety for the child… but not so funny if they’re teenagers making up the same rules!

At this critical stage, the child is highly vulnerable to internalizing false, arbitrary, and harmful rules/schema presented to them by unaware or, often stressed or especially emotionally distraught adults. Some individuals in their family-of-origin receive psychically harmful rules or explanations from frustrated and other dysfunctional parents. “You knew better than that!” “It’s your own fault you can’t go.” “I love you,” following a smack. “I’ll always be here for you,” yet accompanied with physical and/or emotional abandonment. Inconsistent or problematic adult, especially parental feedback in this stage and transitioning into the next stage predict issues in adolescence.

Concrete Operations Stage: Approximately from seven to twelve years of age, in the concrete operations stage (concrete rules stage) children have enough and continue to gain experience to more and more understand how things work- the rules of the world. They can now make a mental representation of an entire sequence of events. They understand concepts such as conservation of volume- for example that, there is the same amount of water in differently shaped containers. The relationship between and among things can be distinguished: which is darker between two light objects. They understand class inclusion- for example, are there more blue or more balls. In this stage, children remain fairly egocentric.

Movement from pre-operational thinking to concrete operations thinking comes from the consistent experience of concrete rules working well. Concrete logical rules have clear cause and effect, rather than magic where causes and effects seem arbitrary. Of major concern is when the child does not experience consistent concreteness because of the erratic behavior of his or her adults. “You should have known… you knew! What’d you expect?!” If this happens the child will stay stuck in pre-operational thinking trying to figure out what is and has been going on. If told he or she should have known better, the non-critiquing child begins to expect him/herself to have mind reading ability to accurately predict others.

Many individuals get stuck in the pre-operational stage because of stress, trauma, or abuse. Or while under emotional stress for example, with hurt or distress in an intimate relationship, they regress to it. Individuals often ask for magical interventions from a friend, partner, teacher, coach, or therapist. They unreasonably expect a transformative communication exercise, interpretation, guidance, or a recommendation for a life changing (that is, change others) book, video, or class. Yet, from the perspective of a three-year-old for whom mom or dad often magically solves the child’s problems, the expectation seems reasonable. The demand for magic is arguably developmentally appropriate for young children, but unfortunately not for adults.

If This, Then That

Concrete operations thinking or processing develops gradually from preschool ages through early elementary school, hopefully from consistent feedback and consistent experience with the world and people. Over time, the child develops a good sense of how things and people work in the world. In the transition to and during this stage, children consistently ask for a concrete rule or judgment—”Is it ok? What do I do? What do you want? What am I supposed to do? Is this right or wrong? Is he a good guy or a bad guy?” It’s a natural process to respond to the uncertainty and unpredictability of the pre-operational stage by seeking clear definitive non-ambiguous rules on how to things work and how to act.

Seeking order and predictability, process answers such as “It depends…” or “Figure it out yourself” are experienced as vague. They are not sufficiently concrete for young children. Thus conceptual responses therefore create ambiguity and perpetuate anxiety. Such answers are more appropriate and can be better handled in the next stage of processing of formal operations. Some adults also often ask, “Is this ok? What do I do?” as well. Classic open-ended responses such as “It depends… What do you think?” often will frustrate them. This interaction may be normal and part of the developmental mentoring process to help children own their own processes and lives. However if by adolescence, they still persist in the “tell me what to do” mode, it may be indicative of them being stuck in concrete operations… or worse yet, stuck in pre-operational magical thinking.

Developmental Quandary

Children, teenagers, and adults stuck in a pre-operational/concrete operations quandary would have had limited and/or unsuccessful experiences moving into the abstract thinking of formal operations. Often, when they fail when asked or required to infer or intuit rules or interpret situations and determine appropriate responses as children. They had not only been unsuccessful, but were sometimes severely punished. If so treated, they would tend to stay conservative and seek definite concrete rules or judgments from someone in authority and power. Initially, this is the parent, next a teacher perhaps, a partner, the peer group, and/or the boss at work. Submitting to an authority is experienced as much safer than risking higher cognitive functioning that might result in a poor choice. Many societies also severely punish individuals for making incorrect choices. In the extreme, this can lead to rigid thinking with little or no nuance or flexibility that would be more adaptive. Individuals may become ever more anxious and even paralyzed as they try to anticipate and be prepared for every situation. In such situations, individuals seek definitive instructions about even how to think. “The preacher/minister/priest/mufti/sage said to…” “Boss told me it was ok!” “That’s what Daddy said!” In contrast to teenagers with adamant moral standards acting against those same values, there are also teenagers who stay childlike in their inability to make decisions for themselves. Their apparent hypocrisy comes not from confusion or a disconnect between ideals and actions but from insecurity about making choices- any choices that might be frowned upon or punished by others. While the first group will profess and own higher values, the second group’s motivating higher value is in getting it “right” so not to be in trouble.

The challenge for adults is two-fold. On the one hand, they need to understand the developmental issues of the formal operations stage for adolescents connecting values and behavior. The second challenge which is the primary parental issue is to guide children in ways that promote the healthy transitions from pre-operational to concrete operations to formal operations. Sometimes, a third challenge arises which is to problem-solve the flawed cognitive processing of teenagers who have not developmentally matured as hoped for in order to have positive teen and adult functioning. The next blog will discuss the formal operations stage further and the development of abstract thinking, issues corrupting the process, and how to improve and repair flawed adolescent intellectual functioning.


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