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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.1 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 and healthcare providers to make sure students with learning disabilities have the skills and support they need for success.    

Additional information on adolescent cognitive development can be found in The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development, produced by the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.


1 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.


Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on August 8, 2018