Bigger Kids

New study: Teens' brains shut out nagging

A new study found that teenagers tune out nagging criticism from mothers. Emma's not surprised.


It turns out all that muffled grown-up talk portrayed on Charlie Brown wasn't just a humorous exaggeration.

A new study suggests teens may only be hearing the garbled  “whaa-whaa-whaa” sound when parents speak—specifically, when their mothers criticize.

I’ve experienced it myself when talking to my teenager. Like his cartoon counterpart, his eyes glaze over and I can just tell he hasn’t heard one bit of the intended-to-be-helpful advice I'm dishing out.

During the study, scientists watched the reaction of 14-year-olds in an MRI machine as they listened to 30-second clips of their mothers criticizing them. The result? As teens listened to the sound bites, the part of their brain that processes negative emotion was fired up, and at the same time, the part of the brain that regulates positive emotion showed decreased activity. The imbalance continued for some time after the clip played.

The sample size for the study was small—only 32 teen participants along with their mothers’ prerecorded voices. (I would love to know if brain lapse happens with dads and teachers, too.) And as Christian Jarret at Wired pointed out, we don’t know what the teens were told to think about while in the MRI. But we do have some examples of the mom’s clips. Here’s a sample:

“One thing that bothers me about you is that you get upset over minor issues. I could tell you to take your shoes from downstairs. You’ll get mad that you have to pick them up and actually walk upstairs and put them in your room.”


But I don’t need to see a long list of examples to know that this study is true. I see it in my son’s face every day when I ask him to toss out the orange peel he left on the couch. Science can now confirm that the conflict between parents and teens isn’t personal, it’s biological. So, what now?

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.

This article was originally published on Dec 17, 2014

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