Magical Thinking Still As Teenagers- Part 2 of 2 on Cognitive Development

Teenagers can be very interesting to talk with. Often retaining the passion of youth with their maturing cognitive skills, their fresh perspectives on just about anything can provoke and stimulate adult involvement. Their hunger for knowledge can make them apt pupils for adults to offer the wisdom of their lives. Adults often are drawn to their evolving ability for abstract thinking involves taking in the canopy of facts, observations, experiences, and history and then making a logical decision, rule, or judgment from them. Their fresh and sometimes innocent excitement can remind adults of their adolescent passion for life. Yet, there immersed in the passion is also a drive for logic, a desire for understanding beyond the surface depth of rules or proclamations, and often innate needs to question social and cultural expectations for their deeper integrity. And yet, the same teenagers can be incredibly inconsistent and frustrating in their follow-through on substantial life decisions- illogical behavior despite logical processing. Sometimes they act as if a fairy godmother or unknown benevolent mentor will pop out of the mists to grant rewards, opportunities, and riches despite their having spent negligible investment of energy or effort towards earning them.

Formal Operations Stage: In this stage which conceptually solidifies starting at twelve years of age on up, pre-teens and teenagers are not wedded to doing things in one manner. Their cognitive flexibility allows them to consider all alternatives to solve problems. They can consider multiple cues and engage in deductive reasoning to come to a logical conclusion or decision. Beyond addressing concrete situations, they become increasingly more proficient at hypothetical thinking- “What if…” “Or, if this instead, then what…?” “How about this then…?” They can use abstract rules or principles to solve a whole class of problems or to address new situations. They are much more rational and systematic in considering options and different perspectives rather than ascribing things to luck or happenstance. Not surprisingly to those who interact with teenagers often, entry into this stage causes them to become very self-conscious and highly reflective- sometimes, obsessively concerned with the imaginary audience scrutinizing them. Transition from the immediacy of the moment, they become more future oriented as they are on the cusp of adulthood. Pre-teens and teenagers can also become less oriented both to peers and families and become remote.

If Ever!

Piaget notes that formal operations cognitive development happens by about twelve years of age… if ever! The qualification “if ever” reflects the intrusion of stress, trauma, and abuse upon development. Inconsistent and arbitrary parenting such as poor mirroring of rules from adults tend to create children who stagnate developmentally during the transition from pre-operational to concrete to formal operations stages. Negative parental dynamics or in the larger society and culture may create an environment of anxious uncertainty that discourage children from taking risks to explore formal operations functioning. Highly moralistic, rigid, and punitive parenting or societies and cultures with singular definitions of right and wrong that ignore the complexities of nuance, circumstances, and qualifying factors further interfere with movement into abstract thinking.

Essentially, when children are in the pre-operations stage- pre-rules stage or stage of magical thinking, they need adults to not just verbalize but react and behave to the rules that reflect successful functioning. The most important thing other than the relative sanity and healthy logic of the rules they express, is that adults follow through logically and consistently. This involves both modeling consistency between their verbal proclamations and their actions (tell children not to lie, but then lie to others), and consistency in following through on rules. “You have to do your homework before you play video games” has to be a real rule without arbitrary and erratic enforcement. If so expressed, but inconsistently applied to children then they do not know if the rule is real or not- logical or subject to mystical whims. They do not know if the consequences are real or not- whether they will be allowed to play video games anyway or not be allowed. The explicitly state rule that one cannot play video games without first doing ones homework becomes an implicit “rule” of whatever! The parent’s mood will dictate follow through or not, but not consistently. A parent in a good mood may let one play anyway without doing homework one day, but not another. A parent in a bad mood may be very restricting and ban video play or not care and allow it. Or, a parent may be more or less vigilant about monitoring and enforcing the rule. Or, deception or an outright lie about having no homework or having already done it may work one time but not another. As a result, the concrete consistent follow through of rules and consequences that moves development from pre-operational thinking to concrete operations is missing. The magical thinking of the pre-operational stage persists as rules and consequences remain erratic, irrational, and arbitrary. Whatever is said or promised means little- the rules are not real.

Stuck With Magical Thinking

Whether or not adults are consistent during the pre-operational age range, children intellectually develop but not necessarily with mature logic and reasoning. If there continues to be inconsistency modeled between verbalizations and actions from adults and erratic follow through on expressed boundaries and consequences, the consolidation of concrete operations schemas (rules) is corrupted. However as they grow from childhood into pre-adolescence and into their teenage years, they not only hear concrete rules but the abstract principles and values of formal operations thinking. From the concrete rules of “don’t hit people” and “say thank you,” there is verbalized the conceptual rules of “be nice to others” or “follow the golden rule- do unto others as you’d like them to do to you.”

Unfortunately, as the supposedly concrete rules are not concrete and consistent but nevertheless form the foundations for the conceptualizations of formal operations thinking, principles taught by adults and society are learned, but learned only as slogans. Learning and repeating “You have to work hard to get ahead,” “Pay the price now or you’ll pay a bigger price later,” and “If you want respect, you need to respect other people” becomes easy and automatic to say, but not to live. And then despite not working hard, they are stunned, disappointed, and resentful that they don’t get ahead; despite avoiding the hard work now, they are surprised that hard consequences arise later; and despite being rude and spiteful, they’re astonished that others won’t give them a second chance… or a third or fourth chance.   Somehow they expect success without hard work, avoidance of the consequences of bad choices, and to be admired despite not doing admirable things to others. Essentially because of the inconsistencies of adult (and social) reactions and feedback from pre-operational to concrete operations and into the age when formal operations are supposed to develop, they are stuck in the stage of magical thinking. Luck and bad luck-that is magic determine what happens rather than some logic or rational process.

Cannot Hear or Cannot Do

When adults consider the interventions and communications of parenting or guiding teenagers, they often find teenagers wanting specific and concrete guidance. However depending on parenting or mentoring styles, adults may give very general ideas and principles that teenagers are to interpret for application in their lives. Theories of academic or career advancement, of social and emotional development, of relationships, and so forth are expressed as formal operations conceptualizations. This can work IF teenagers can engage in formal operations thinking- abstract conceptual processing rather than magical thinking. It can be as if some teenagers cannot hear what adults or saying- or just cannot understand them.

Adults interpret teenage issues through the lenses of such concepts and offer specific interventions as they suggest. Or, adults may apply specific interventions as prescribed by some belief system. Interpretation may be limited to the choice of beliefs that subsequently mandates a set of interventions. Depending on personal style, adults may share some or all of their conceptual process leading to interactions with teenagers. Some teenagers unfortunately may reject the interventions because of not being able to conceptually hold their underlying logic. They may be stuck in an earlier developmental stage of functioning. Or, as may be the case, some individuals are unable to follow through on prescriptions despite understanding and aligning with them. They seemingly understand, but somehow cannot do what is suggested or prescribed. Teenagers (and some adults!) may be able to dabble in but not remain stably in formal operations processing. They may regress back into earlier developmental stages because of various life stresses. The failure of interactions based on the expectation of teenagers being able to activate formal operations processing is information that suggests problematic early childhood developmental difficulties. Adults may find worthwhile exploring for such difficulties and their impact on the current relationship and functioning.

Relationship Consequences

Only when teenagers accumulates broad spectrums of consistent experience that are thematically similar, will they then develop principles, theories, or schema that encompass both past learning and allows them to interpret future challenges successfully. The cognitive or intellectual security to process and interpret successfully lends itself to emotional security as well. A challenge to a mutually respectful approach to teenagers assumes teenagers’ cognitive maturity. However, formal operations functioning may not be very difficult if not impossible for some individuals, especially when they are under stress. And adolescence is full of stress!

Uncertainty about what any particular recommendation or principle to follow adds to one’s stress. The directive to take care of oneself will not be followed through on unless the individual has a multitude of experiences where he or she was guided to take care him/herself with positive consequences. And other situations where he or she did not take care of him/herself and there were negative consequences. With these experiences, the general instruction of “taking care of yourself” can more readily be interpreted and acted upon in new circumstance with specific choices and behaviors. One person wants to do something that another person dislikes. This needs to be recognized as a “taking care of yourself” situation. If first person defers without protest to avoid an unnecessary conflict, is that taking care of him or herself? Moreover, if deferring means the person will hold resentment, is that taking care of oneself? Would expressing oneself and still deferring to the other be taking care of oneself? This scenario is often particularly stressful for teenagers trying to fit in with others while simultaneously trying to find their own identity. Other schema for relationships and personal health may need to be balanced: don’t sweat the small stuff; you have to pick your battles; honesty and open communication is important in relationships; you shouldn’t keep score in a relationship; you need to balance different principles; and so forth.

Advanced cognitive processing is most critical when involved in a volatile, erratic, yet passionate relationship. That could be between partners in a couple, and certainly can be between parents and teenagers… or a teenager and his or her BFF (best friend forever- or at least for this week)! An individual often might assert various formal operations conceptualizations of life with in the relationship- that is, high principles while just as frequently violating their own rules. Many teenagers are otherwise outstanding at verbalizing and agreeing to various behavior rules, only later to complain about violations- their own and others’. Adults may start to wonder if they are deceiving him/her or if they are somehow fundamentally disconnected between thought and behavior. The principles or values seem to be slogans to rant rather than commitments to act appropriately. Not seeing underlying themes in the moment, many teenagers tend to make similar errors in life choices over and over without learning from them. The lack of sound cognitive developmental foundations makes them claim positive outcomes to good luck or blame negative consequences to bad luck. They often can espouse all the correct progressive slogans of self-affirmation and health. They are often more heart-felt and articulate than adults, but maintain highly dysfunctional and toxic dynamics in real life. Not just adolescents are vulnerable to this- many developmentally arrested adults do this. This is not a reference to neurological development, retardation, autism, etc., but otherwise normal intellectually functioning adults.

Specific Behaviors- Walking the Talk

When teenagers or adults proclaim allegiance to an abstract principle to hold, one needs to make them articulate the specific behaviors that will reflect the principle.   Do not accept whatever principled proclamations from teenagers no matter how wonderful they sound. Ask them for specifics about they are going to walk the talk. Don’t be fooled with words that sound nice, but prompt teenagers as to what are the real world and real actions with real people that they are going to do?

“From this value in your relationship, family, or culture, what are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to act? What does it mean in terms of behavior and choices? What are you going to do?”

Adults should return teenagers (and others prone to magical thinking) developmentally to the stage of concrete operations where they had still lacked foundational maturity. Parenting or any facilitative task often thus becomes a process to quantify behaviorally precisely what behaviors need to be practiced. “Be nice” has as many interpretations and subsequent directives for adults as it may have had for younger children. Telling young children to “Be nice,” was followed up with specific behavioral instructions such as “Say ‘Thank You’ and ‘Please,'” “Let her play with your toys.” As they grew older, further instructions included, “Look him/her in the eyes when you speak to him/her.” Later relational advice included “Acknowledge him/her when he/she comes home,” “Remember what he/she likes and what he/she doesn’t like.” “Don’t give him/her a generic present… give him/her something you know he/she likes,” “Bother to find out what he/she likes!” “Touch, hug every morning, every night, every time you leave the house.” “Be nice” involves a whole long list of specific actions to do consistently.

These instructions may sound like simplistic work, but it may be what teenagers (and others) need given stuck development. Essentially, the “magic” experience of erratic and arbitrary early modeling, feedback, and response has to be replaced through consistent application of concrete expressions of the abstract principles for healthy functioning and relationships. The greatest challenge often is for the adult or parent to be consistent when he or she hadn’t been consistent before. Whereas the teenager may be going through a developmentally more or less exacerbated by problematic adult modeling and guidance, the adult or parent who has been inconsistent and erratic had probably been so habitually for literally decades. The underlying adult issues may be relatively simple to highly difficult to address and resolve. If that adult is YOU, can you own your inconsistency and do the hard work needed for yourself and your teenagers? Or, are you hoping for magic too?


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