As you may have noticed throughout your life, not every child grows up smart. In this brief article, some straight talk about adolescent brain development.

Each area of a child’s growing brain has a sensitive window for development. For the kind of adult-level thinking skills involved in reasoning, evaluating, imagining, decision making, problem solving, planning, and managing, the sensitive window is adolescence.

Adolescence is the prime-time for developing over a dozen basic foundation thinking skills. These enormously important skills reside in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). As in all skill development, lots of repetitions will be needed to establish these skill circuits in the brain.

But will your adolescent child do the work to ingrain these skills? Once you understand how adolescent brain development works, you’ll see that this really is an urgent question, because your child can’t postpone acquiring these skills until they’re an adult.

The process for wiring the PFC for key adult-level thinking skills happens the same way other basic skills (walking, talking, etc.) were wired earlier in childhood: (1) overproduction of brain cell connections to ensure there are enough connections to create the circuits for the skills, (2) enough repetitions to wire the circuits, followed by (3) pruning, which gradually eliminates unused connections, so the wired circuits can fire more efficiently.

Near the end of adolescence, the pruning phase will be complete. All unused connections in the PFC will finally be eliminated. Only the established circuits will remain.

Teens who exercise their PFC a lot will form more thinking skill circuits, meaning that fewer unused connections will need to be eliminated.

Teens who neglect to exercise their PFC during adolescence will develop fewer thinking skill circuits, and a lot more unused connections will be eliminated.

Fewer circuits means less intellectual capacity. 

This is why some adults have extraordinary minds and others don’t. Intellectual capacity among adults adults varies widely.

The rate of pruning of connections varies from child to child. For some kids, pruning will be complete by age 16; others by the early 20s. The best strategy is to exercise and build thinking skills early and often.

So it really is a race against time. The future success of your child will depend on what happens before they become an adult. After all the unused connections are pruned away, no more brain connections are available to establish these basic skills. Building on a small foundation is still possible as an adult, but you can’t build a massive edifice for thinking on a small foundation.

For some a dramatic illustration of the consequence of neglecting to develop a brain area during the sensitive period of development, here is a compelling story.

This result is permanent. No do-overs. It’s how some teens become really smart adults. Or not.

For thousands of years, young people had to be fortunate to have the right kind of teachers and mentors and pursue the right kind of interests to develop fine minds. Obviously, only a small percentage of them got lucky.

Today, parents and young people can take luck out of the equation. Recent brain research has shown how this development takes place, and how teens can consciously and deliberately get involved in activities that build circuits in the PFC – without any special mind games.

The really good news: this life-changing result is possible regardless of gender, race or economic/cultural background.

While only the child can do the work, there’s much parents can do to help maximize this finite period of development.

All this is explained in greater detail in my book: How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain.

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