As stated before, in the given stages of adolescence there will always be exceptions to the broad characteristics of cognitive development based on any number of outliers in the life of the adolescent including: family of origin, present life context, past trauma and much more.
For the sake of this discussion I will be writing about the typical college student or late adolescent and the characteristics commonly defining his or her stage of cognitive development.
At this age we continue with the formal operational stage of Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. This is the fourth and final stage. The ability to grapple with abstract thinking continues accelerating along with the emergence of other characteristics peculiar to this stage in life.
For many it is easy to believe once an adolescent graduates high school they have officially “arrived” as an adult. Brain development research over many years suggests otherwise. Studies show us that full brain development does not occur until age 25, three years after the typical college student graduates! National Geographic reported a National Institute of Health study that “showed that our brains undergo a massive reorganization between our 12th and 25th years. The brain doesn't actually grow very much during this period. It has already reached 90 percent of its full size by the time a person is six, and a thickening skull accounts for most head growth afterward. But as we move through adolescence, the brain undergoes extensive remodeling, resembling a network and wiring upgrade.”
Let us 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 college age person.
CHARACTERISTICS (see for further discussion standfordchildrens.org)
- Pondering global concepts – The late adolescent thinks more about politics, history, justice and larger world issues
- Entertaining idealistic thinking – The college age person develops more idealistic thoughts about issues and concerns. Douglas Hyde, in his book, DEDICATION AND LEADERSHIP, described how Communist Leadership loved to capitalize on the idealism of the late adolescent in their recruiting strategies.
- Fighting opposing views – The late adolescent may want to refute or even be intolerant of opposing views. The ability to think about thinking opens one to all types of divergent opinions and the ability to reject them.
- Thinking about career decisions – The typical late adolescent is in college and considering a career or vocational path of some type. Formal operational thinking allows them the opportunity to begin taking the “aerial view of their life,” seeing the larger picture.
- Being aware of his/her emerging adulthood – We often call this age young adulthood and some days this would be accurate! But, as we mentioned earlier the brain is not completely developed until age 25 so adolescence is still very much present. The college age person is aware they are peering into the world of adulthood and so one’s thinking straddles the playfulness of adolescence and the need to settle on impactful early adulthood choices.
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 of cognitive development but working on the front lines with youth I again offer the following practical thoughts.
- Pondering global concepts – The late adolescent not only feels the trauma in their local setting but may now be feeling it in many different world situations. Access to social media and internet open up the world to experience trauma in real time and through the lens of people “on the ground.” His or her sense of justice and understanding of politics adds to the depth he or she may experience the tragedy. Be aware of this as you debrief particular events and help the late adolescent make connections where appropriate.
- Entertaining idealistic thinking – While looking at the world with a “can-do” lens can be productive it could also be a liability for the late adolescent in the way they respond to trauma in their life. This may play out in three ways:
- “One and done” – “I experienced that tragedy so I won’t experience it again.”
- “Fix it” – “I experienced a trauma and I am strong enough to get through it on my own.”
- “This is not the end” – “I can cope as I reach out and seek the help of others.” Listen for these different responses, walk with the person toward #3 and capitalize on his or her idealism to go forward.
- Fighting opposing views – The college age person may not want to hear the different witness accounts or ideas for responding to their trauma. This new ability to practice complex thought often leaves them with the impression they have it all figured out or will figure it out individually. Where he or she is given unhealthy information or advice this opposition can become an asset! You can be an encourager for welcoming all advice and then coaching toward healthy discernment.
- Thinking about career decisions – As the late adolescent contemplates the future it is possible this thinking will be a healthy piece of carrying him or her through trauma. It will point to life beyond the valley where one is standing in the post-traumatic situation. Be a mentor or help identify an older mentor so the late adolescent may look beyond the present and imagine the future.
- Being aware of his/her emerging adulthood – With this vantage point the late adolescent can be aware there is a lot more life ahead and in that way buoy themselves to pursue healthy therapy and coping in response to the trauma experience. This perspective also affords the late adolescent with the realization that other adults have “survived” similar traumas and gone on to live healthy and productive lives. Helping the late adolescent to invite caring adults, who are ahead of him or her “on the road” gives hope and a sense of not being alone.
You may have more applications. Feel free to add those in the comment section.