In 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 teenager 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 high school student and the characteristics commonly defining their stage of cognitive development.
We come now to the formal operational stage of Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. This is the fourth and final stage. It is here we see the move from concrete thinking to more abstract thought.
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 high schooler.
- Logic – This is also known as deductive reasoning. At this stage the thinker is able to take a topic or general principle and consider multiple other ideas. Typically science and mathematics require this type of thinking.
- Abstract Thought – Concrete operational thinkers tend to think in “black-and-white.” They mostly just “think” whereas formal operational thinkers “think about thinking!” This opens the door for big picture or long range thinking.
- Problem Solving – While concrete operational thinkers used experimentation to solve problems the formal stage opens the door for logically and methodically solving a problem. The high school student is capable of organizing a plan for finding solutions before plunging forward.
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.
- LOGIC - With their opportunity to apply basic logic or deductive reasoning high schoolers can now look at a particular event in a different positive or negative perspective. On the negative side their deductive reasoning powers can move them to magnify the trauma as they are able to consider all the destructive possibilities realized and not yet realized in response to their trauma. On the positive side their logical thinking puts them on the road to imagining all the healthy outcomes in their lives and the lives of others.
- ABSTRACT THOUGHT – With this ability comes the capacity to realize not every trauma is the same for every person and traumas happen to people all over the world in different ways to different people. This also opens the door to consider the complexities of our individual responses to trauma. For example, just because I have seen the response of one person to the same trauma does not mean I will experience it the same way as that person. Understanding this spurs the individual to see the whole situation with an “aerial” view and think of the longer term view.
- PROBLEM SOLVING – When a trauma occurs the individual can easily be overwhelmed, at first, seeing only a “dark tunnel.” In the context of a healthy community and those who care the person will be able to start seeing the small light at the end. With the competence to problem solve the high schooler can think about steps toward processing and healing. The care giver in their life can walk alongside them in the course of action.
You may have more applications. Feel free to add those in the comment section.
NEXT TIME: What a College Student/Late Adolescent thinks of Trauma
Other sources on Formal Operational Thinking