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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:

  • 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 helps young people with different learning styles. 
  • 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.
  • 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, whether in early childhood or in adolescence, and helping adolescents cope, can go a long way in improving young people’s well-being.
  • 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. 
  • 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), 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:

  • 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. 
  • “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
  • 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.  

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 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/


Content created by Office of Adolescent Health
Content last reviewed on July 2, 2019