In a separate post, I quoted Dr. Jay Giedd, the pioneering brain researcher who discovered that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is still under development during a child’s adolescence, that this is the “smart” area of the brain, and that wiring the PFC will vary greatly from child to child, depending on how often they exercise critical thinking skills during youth.

The child has to do the work.

This isn’t something from which over-protective parents can rescue their children. In fact, doing the work for them would have the opposite result. It would reinforce the parent’s brain, not the child’s. The child would be robbed of the opportunity to exercise the crucial skills.

So what can a concerned parent do? In brief, inform and encourage. Here are the 5 most important ways to do this.

Let your kid in on the secret.

First inform yourself about what’s going on in the adolescent brain. I’ve written several posts about this. Also the book, How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain, goes into more detail.

Then tell your child what you learned. Even better, give your child access to this information. Without exception, every teenager I’ve informed about these facts has been fascinated and appreciative. Knowledge is power. Your child won’t be motivated or empowered to make good choices if he or she has no clue what’s going on.

Encourage your child to think.

Most parents grew up thinking that it was the job of the parent, who possesses superior judgment and experience, to instruct, correct, advise, answer, solve, and decide for the child. The problem is, parenting this way doesn’t teach as effectively as you think it does. And it robs the child of the opportunity to exercise and build thinking skills. Because the only way anyone can develop critical thinking is to exercise the skills repeatedly over time.

The lucky kids are those whose parents ask open-ended questions like:

  • What do you think?
  • If you do this, what do you believe will happen?
  • What are your options?
  • How important is this to you?

And dozens more questions that encourage a child to do the mental gymnastics of critical thinking.

Support activities that involve critical thinking.

One of the most wonderful aspects of school is friendships. Aside from this benefit, I can’t think of anything about teen culture that exercises the mind, except perhaps consistently resisting peer pressure. Participation in sports can promote health and fitness, while building elements of character strength. On the other hand, sports do little to exercise thinking skills. But other extracurricular activities do. To have an impact on your child’s PFC, he or she will have to get involved in the activity, take it seriously, persevere and learn from it. Your role is to show interest, share positive feedback and give support, if needed.

  • Groups involved in leadership and event planning.
  • Entrepreneurial ventures to earn money.
  • Clubs, such as robotics, chess, debate, and FFA .
  • Volunteer work, especially in a leadership role.
  • Games involving strategy, such as chess, go, Dungeons and Dragons, and sudoku.  

Encourage academic work that involves critical thinking.

Once again, the child has to do more than show up for class and get a passing grade. To exercise the PFC, the child should aim to master the material. The courses that most consistently exercise the PFC are STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses. As an example, the child who becomes adept at computer programming will automatically wire his or her PFC for many mental skills. In the best case, a child will pursue many such courses while balancing learning with studies in the humanities. In fact, history and English courses can nurture critical thinking if the instructor encourages student analysis, teaching the “why” as well as the “what.” Essay writing is beneficial if the instructor emphasizes organization fundamentals. Philosophy courses are excellent for exercising logical thinking.

In other words, the right courses can not only teach knowledge, they can help a student learn to think.

Protect your child’s brain.

Women are advised to avoid alcohol and drugs during pregnancy because these substances can enter the womb and disrupt normal development of the growing baby’s body and brain. Abuse during this time can produce horrible lifelong consequences.

Adolescent children, especially teenagers, are in a similar danger zone because their PFC is still under development. The kind of drinking and substance abuse many teenagers indulge in can disrupt normal brain development. This particular danger applies to adolescents only – people experiencing the second dozen years of their life.

About a third of teenagers have never used alcohol, nicotine, or drugs (including abuse of medicines). If your child is going to experiment with these substances, to avoid the equivalent of brain damage, they need to wait until after college to do so.

A similar danger exists for “gamers,” teens who play violent video games hour after hour. These first-person shooter games are exciting, which is what makes them addictive. More to the point, the chemicals produced by this fight-or-flight excitement are the kind that can disrupt learning and development in a growing brain.

If a child must play games, parents should encourage non-violent strategy games instead. Chess has no equal in this regard, though many video games exercise strategy.

The Developing Adolescent Brain – What’s at Stake

The context for this article is the chapters of Part Two of my new book: How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain.

You can grow the bond with your child through better listening. Download the FREE ebook, Listening to Understand.

Your understanding of these facts will set you apart from practically all parents of previous generations. Because this knowledge wasn’t available, they had to rely on love and doing their best, which as you know is crucial but not enough. This new level of awareness caN empower you to proactively guide your child to develop a superior mind.