In this generation of "push" we have managed to make adolescents into little adults we expect to think and act like us. When trauma enters our lives we are tested in our understanding of how someone may respond.
As youth leaders and / or parents we are further tested in how a teenager may respond to any given traumatic event. We could say, on any day, we are challenged to guess how an early adolescent would respond!
Most researchers generally agree the early adolescent can still be found in the concrete operational thinking stage defined by Jean Piaget. This is the third stage in Piaget's theory of cognitive development. It spans the age of middle childhood through early to mid-Middle school.
Let it be noted some of them – especially 8th graders – are entering formal operational thought. This means, depending on a whole host of factors, they are straddling two stages. This will be addressed in a few paragraphs!
We'll now take a look at a few characteristics of this stage, make a few observations on how it may play out in the post-trauma situation and suggest a few action points in our care of the middle schooler.
- Inductive Logic or Reasoning – This entails going from the specific to a general principle. At this stage the thinker begins making a connection between a situation and what a future response might be. An example of this might be observing every time you drink certain sodas you have lots of "extra" energy and don't sleep well.
- Reversibility – Concrete operational thinkers understand actions or awareness can be reversed. In this piece a person is able to "reverse" the order of relationships between mental categories. One example I saw from one of the referenced websites below said "a child might be able to recognize his or her dog is a Labrador, that a Labrador is a dog, and that a dog is an animal."
- Conservation – This is the understanding that when something is broken into pieces it is still the same amount as the whole. It may look different but it is still part of the whole.
- Ego-centricism – Thinking about oneself only begins to disappear. Now early adolescents are aware of what others may be thinking about them.
What are the applications we might be putting into play in times of trauma with this age group? I do not claim to be an expert in cognitive development theories but working on the front lines with youth I can offer the following practical thoughts.
1) With their ability to do inductive logic or reasoning comes the capacity to look at the traumatic event and tie in their fear or sadness with any future event just like it. Even before the immediate trauma of the present has diminished it is possible they are fearing a re-occurrence. The loving youth leader / parent will encourage the early adolescent to stay in the present and respond to the here and now. Fears of the future can be validated but addressed later.
2) Reversibility gives a middle school parent / youth leader the opportunity to look at the trauma through a logical lens – when possible. For example if an early adolescent is traumatized by a local wildfire the conversation could be had about the root of the fire: the fire was fueled by dry brush, caused by a random lightning strike and all are a part of nature. Where an arsonist is involved one might take the conversation back to understanding mental health issues. While this does not erase the trauma it gives the youth an opportunity to be a little more objective in the conversation.
3) Conservation reminds the middle schooler there are many pieces to trauma including feelings, responses, physical symptoms and more. They are all a part of the traumatic event. The caregiver can help the early adolescent to identify these.
4) As ego-centricism moves "back stage" the parent / youth leader can help the middle schooler to imagine the feelings of those who are or who have responded to the same event. This is where the power of community and youth groups are helpful in processing the traumatic event for early adolescents.
You may have more applications. Feel free to add those in the comment section.
NEXT TIME: What a High Schooler Thinks of Trauma
Other sources on Concrete Operational Thinking –