From Adolescence to Adulthood: Learning to Problem Solve

As a teenager, you’re in between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be no longer a child and not quite yet an adult either. It’s an awkward stage of life in which you’ve got one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood and finding the ground beneath you might be difficult.

Problem Solve

Part of this awkwardness could be the fact that the brain itself is still developing. The frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reasoning, planning, judgment, and impulse control, is fully developed in adults. This part of completes its growth during ages 23-26. This might explain a teen’s tendency to make poor decisions and an inability to discern whether a situation is safe. Teens tend to experiment with risky behavior and don’t fully recognize the consequences of their choices.

Even though the adolescent brain is still developing, learning the various methods to problem solve can be useful and even necessary. For instance, there is a wonderful movie that describes the life of Dr. Ben Carson. He was an at-risk youth who grew up to be a very successful surgeon, despite his challenging upbringing. In his career, he was often faced with medical challenges for which he needed to find solutions.

How To Problem Solve

At times, he was likely needed to problem solve, while other times, insightful ideas came to him, one of his brilliant answers is partly the focus of the movie, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. To Problem solve is the process of thinking that occurs when a goal must be reached. It includes the following methods:

Trial and error is a mechanical solution, in which an individual tries one solution after another until finding one that works.

  • Algorithms are very specific step-by-step procedures for solving certain types of problems. Algorithms result in one correct solution if there is a solution to be found. For example, solving the Rubik’s Cube or uncovering the correct ATM pin by trying all possible combinations of 4 numbers.
  • Heuristic is an educated guess based on prior experiences. It is a rule of thumb; however will not always lead to the right solution.
  • Insight is when a solution to a problem suddenly comes to mind


When we are mulling over a problem, there are some limitations to problem solving that are important to recognize. They can get in the way of out-of-the-box thinking lead to finding a solution. These are:

Functional fixedness – thinking of objects in terms of only their typical function, which can become an obstacle to solving a problem. For instance, instead of using a pen to write, you might use it to hold up your hair or men might use a shirt to wipe off their sweat at the gym versus wearing it.

  • Mental sets – the tendency for people to persist in using problem solving patterns that have worked for them in the past. An example of moving out of a mental set is crossing the line in the carpool lane to avoid an accident.
  • Confirmation Bias – the tendency to search for evidence that fits one’s beliefs while ignoring any evidence that does not fit those beliefs, such as seeing only the good in someone that you like.

When faced with the challenge of separating Siamese twins that were joined at the head, Dr. Carson wondered why previous attempts to separate them always led to one or both children bleeding to death. Later, when talking with a cardiologist, he had an insight:

Is there any reason that – if we were doing a set of Siamese twins that were joined at the head – that we couldn’t put them into hypothermic arrest, at the appropriate time, when we’re likely to lose a lot of blood?’ and he said, ‘No way.’ I said, ‘Wow, this is great!” …Five months later we brought them over and did the operation, and lo and behold, it worked.


Of course, having an insight might feel like a gift from the deeper workings of your mind. Nonetheless, knowing the other forms of problem solving can facilitate the transition into adulthood and even promote your success when you’re there.