Characteristics of Adolescent Thinking

There are four important characteristics that distinguish adolescent thinking from more mature thinking:

  • adolescent egocentrism (intense preoccupation with one’s own feelings and lack of connection to feelings of others),
  • imaginary audience (the belief that one is the focus of others’ thinking and attention),
  • personal fable (the belief that no one else can possibly understand one’s feelings and experiences because they are unique), and
  • illusion of invulnerability (the belief that bad things only happen to other people.)

We see these characteristics in many of our students, especially those who are having trouble making the transition from high school to CEGEP.

Adolescent egocentrism expresses itself in everything from making appointments and not showing up for them, or showing up unannounced or early and expecting to be accommodated (because in the student’s mind, the teacher’s time and convenience are not relevant), to email and telephone etiquette (I sometimes receive one-line emails with no contextual information and signed only with the student’s first name, or calls in which the student begins asking questions without identifying him- or herself or asking if I’m busy.)

The imaginary audience is everywhere – some students, for example, tell me that they hate it when I ask them to write on the board, even if they are one of many people writing at the same time, because they imagine everyone’s critical eyes on their clothes, their hair, and their backsides. (I’m not convinced, though, that the audience is entirely imaginary. Many of their classmates really are looking at them and judging them, sometimes harshly.)

I think most students have gotten past the “personal fable” stage when it comes to emotional issues – they have enough experience to know that the pain they feel about their breakup is similar to how their friend felt about hers last week – but some still hold on to this when it comes to school achievement: if they aren’t doing well, then it’s because something is wrong with them, and not because learning is sometimes a struggle for everyone.

The illusion of invulnerability is one that we see played out over and over in the classroom, when students don’t do any work and then are surprised that they receive poor grades.

The characteristics of adolescent thinking, like other aspects of adolescent cognitive development, are real, ubiquitous, and often unresolved even at the early adult stage, and not a result of incorrigible failings or character deficiencies on the part of our students.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve started receiving comments on evaluations about how I “get annoyed easily.” This at first hurt me, perhaps because I recognized it to be true. When students talk amongst themselves when I’m talking, expect me to give them help when they’ve been nothing but a royal pain in the ass in the classroom, ask question after question that I’ve already answered, or don’t ask questions at all and consequently don’t carry out directions properly, I lose patience.

I have been examining why I’m so much more easily irritated by students than I used to be, and I think it’s because I’m no longer an emerging adult myself, and so am less sympathetic to the adolescent egocentrism that often lingers into emerging adulthood (my egocentrism is now of the adult variety.) As a result, I project the attitude that there’s something wrong with students and their behavior, and this diminishes them – they may either internalize this attitude and feel bad about themselves, or reject it and me.

I think that, instead of labeling certain behaviors as rude, disrespectful, or foolish, viewing these behaviors as simply typical of the time in these students’ lives would help me maintain a more pleasant classroom demeanor and enjoy my students more as people, and would reinforce them instead of belittling them. This doesn’t mean giving carte blanche, of course, but simply means being more sensitive.

I need to see students for what they are, instead of being frustrated by what they are not. I don’t think this means accepting behavior that is unacceptable – sometimes the best way to teach someone and to help him or her along to the next level is to say, “That’s not cool. Stop doing that.” However, by bringing a sincere acceptance of, and curiosity about, them into the classroom, I can alleviate my own irritation and can perhaps, indirectly, help them see themselves more clearly as well.

(This post was adapted from an analytical response to the following text:

Kail, R., Cavanaugh, J. C., & Ateah, C. A. (2006) Emerging Adulthood (Canadian ed.) Custom Edition of Human Development: A Life-Span View. Scarborough, Ont.: Thomson Custom Publishing.

I wrote the original analysis for an MEd course.)


9 thoughts on “Characteristics of Adolescent Thinking

  1. Cool. I have recognized these characteristics but never seen them spelled ou like that. I see them not only in my students but with Tessa as well (who just turned 14.)

    Tessa, by the way, has been a subject in a study of the adolesecnt brain at the Montreal neurological hospital (near Royal Vic) over the last few years, since she was nine I think. I can share the results when it is completed.

    Here is a description:
    Increasing Human Potential: A longitudinal study of brain development during adolescence

    Through advances in neuroscience, and particularly developmental neurobiology and cognitive psychology, the means now exist to study human intellectual development with a particular emphasis on cognition, memory, language as well as emotion and social interactions. Not only can we now understand how the human brain learns throughout the entire life span, but we can also use these insights as a way to optimize education and individual achievement, particularly during childhood and adolescence.

    We are part of The Santa Fe Institute Consortium, a group of scientists with broad, multidisciplinary perspectives on brain development. This group has initiated a longitudinal study of brain development during infancy and adolescence. We will study changes in brain anatomy using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), brain physiology using Electroencephalography (EEG) and behaviour, with the emphasis on language and social cognition.

    Funded by The Santa Fe Institute Consortium.

    Collaborators: Drs. Watkins, Pike (MNI), Benasich, Tallal (Rutgers University), Dapretto, Iacoboni, Mazziotta (University of California in Los Angeles), Kuhl, Meltzoff (university of Washington in Seattle), and Goldberg, Cowan (Santa Fe Institute).


  2. Teaching adolescents is a lot like parenting young children. As a parent who was herself raised with a parenting particular style, I found myself falling into parental patterns of annoyance and even anger when my toddler would behave in a certain ways. However, the more I read about normal toddler behaviour, the more I recognized his behaviour as perfectly normal for this stage. While I don’t condone things he must learn are wrong, I choose not to get angry or annoyed over them. He used to react to my annoyance by becoming annoyed or angry. Now, as I react calmly, kindly but firmly, he is able to process his responses in a much healthier way and get over anger or frustration much more easily. I think it is the same with our students. If we are firm, but understanding and kind, they will be able to get past their own behaviour problems more readily because we are not adding a sense of rejection or emotional turmoil into the mix.


  3. Kermit: I would be very interested in knowing what comes of the study you describe. The adolescent brain continually intrigues me, even when it’s making me mad.

    Maia: I agree that toddlers and adolescents are pretty similar in this way – and adults are, too, I think. The behaviors we exhibit are different (sometimes), but nobody wants to be told that what we’re doing is wrong and bad when it seems appropriate to us, or when we don’t know how else to behave.


  4. I don’t really think it’s fair that you can judge all adolescents like this, there are some that are more mature, and it’s not right to lump them into the same category as the immature ones, is it?
    Besides, I’m sure the teens you’re talking about don’t have the advantage of age under their belt like you do, so it’s only natural that they act the way they do because they’re not as experienced with people. Cut them some slack, they’ll grow up.


  5. As a 21 year old with a decent amount of life experience, it always shocks me how much my behavior continues to conform to these same patterns! I’ve always thought of myself as a little more mature than others my age, but the fact remains that I constantly assume people are judging me, and I certainly don’t always think through consequences of my actions. I’ve been told many times before that the human brain (frontal lobe? I think that’s the part I’m thinking of) doesn’t fully mature until around 25 years of age. It’s not a question of “maturity” as many people think of it – the idea that, emotionally, some young adults are more able to cope with “real life” situations than others. That sort of “maturity” allows teens and young adults to overcome their natural tendencies towards “adolescent thinking,” in my opinion. But no matter how mature you are in that sense, until your brain finishes growing you are still prone to act adolescently – it’s biology!

    Thanks for the reminder that I’ve still got some growing up to do – it’s nice to remember that I’m still young! Helps take some of the sting out of the mistakes I make.


    1. Katy: The humbling thing is that I’m over forty and I haven’t recovered from some of these syndromes yet. I think we learn to adjust for them as we get older, as you say, and we have more perspective to help us deal with our egocentric tendencies…if we’re lucky and we care to! Thanks for your thoughts.


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