Formal operations or abstract thinking involves taking in the canopy of facts, observations, experiences, and history and then making a logical decision, rule, or judgment from them. This begins between 11-15 years old (Learning-Theories, 2010). Piaget notes that it happens by about 12 years of age… if ever! The qualification "if ever" reflects the intrusion of stress, trauma, and abuse upon development. Inconsistent and arbitrary parenting such as poor mirroring of rules from adults tend to create children who stagnate developmentally during the transition from pre-operational to concrete to formal operations stages. Negative parental dynamics or in the larger society and culture may create an environment of anxious uncertainty that discourage children from taking risks to explore formal operations functioning. Highly moralistic, rigid, and punitive parenting or societies and cultures with singular definitions of right and wrong that ignore the complexities of nuance, circumstances, and qualifying factors further interfere with movement into abstract thinking.
When the therapist considers the interventions and communications of therapy, they often find clients want specific and concrete guidance. However depending on theoretical orientation, the therapist may give very general ideas and principles that clients are to interpret for application in their lives. Theories of therapy, of human development, of relationships, and so forth are expressed as formal operations conceptualizations. The therapist interprets client issues through the lenses of such concepts and chooses specific interventions as they suggest. Or, the therapist may apply specific interventions as prescribed by a theory. Interpretation may be limited to the choice of a theory and therapy that subsequently mandates a set of interventions. Depending on clinical orientation, the therapist may share some or all of his or her conceptual process leading to interventions with the client. Some clients and couples unfortunately may reject the interventions because of not being able to conceptually hold their underlying logic. They may be stuck in an earlier developmental stage of functioning. Or, as is more often the case, some individuals are unable to follow through on prescriptions despite understanding and aligning with them. In such cases, clients may be able to dabble in but not remain stably in formal operations processing. They may regress back into earlier developmental stages because of various life stresses. The failure of therapeutic interventions based on the expectation of the client being able to activate formal operations processing is clinical data that suggests problematic early childhood developmental difficulties. The therapist may find exploring for such difficulties and their impact on the current relationship and functioning.