Developmental psychologists have measured and documented a jump in cognitive capabilities in early adolescence. Beginning around the age of 12, adolescents decrease their reliance on concrete, here-and-now thinking and begin to show the capacity for abstract thinking, visualization of potential outcomes, and a logistical understanding of cause and effect. Teens begin looking at situations and deciding whether it is safe, risky, or dangerous.1 These aspects of development correlate with the maturation of the frontal lobe, a shift from expanding neural connections to pruning and an increase in hormones released; all of which drive an adolescent’s mood and impulsive behavior. By age 15, studies show there is little difference in decision-making about hypothetical situations between adults and adolescents.2 Teens were found capable of reasoning about the possible harm or benefits of different courses of action. However, in the real world, adolescents still engaged in dangerous behaviors, despite understanding the risks involved. Both the role of emotions and the connection between feeling and thinking need to be considered when trying to understand the way teens make decisions.
Researchers have termed this type of thinking “hot” cognition and “cold” cognition. “Hot” cognition is described as thinking under conditions of high arousal and intense emotion. Under these conditions, teens tend to make poorer decisions. Under “cold” cognition thinking, circumstances are less intense and teens can make better decisions. Then with the addition of all the complex feelings -- such as fear of rejection, wanting to look “cool,” the excitement of the risk, or anxiety of being caught -- make it even more difficult for teens to think through potential outcomes, understand consequences of their decisions, or even use common sense.3
The immaturity of the connections between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, and the research around the amygdala, provide support to this theory. Investigations into these ideas are on-going. As program staff, you can be a mentor and role model by demonstrating and coaching teens in your program how to control their emotions and make healthier decisions.