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Why Teens Stop Listening to Their Parents

The teenage brain appears programmed to seek new voices.

Key points

  • New research finds teen-aged brains are programmed to tune into new voices and put less emphasis on their parents' voices.
  • This development is a major change from the brain of children, whose brains are wired to pay more attention to their parents' voices.
Ermolaeva Olga/Adobe Stock
Source: Ermolaeva Olga/Adobe Stock

“Can you please put your dishes in the sink?”

“Please put your dishes in the sink.”

“I’m not sure you heard me. Can you put these dishes in the sink?”

If you’re the parent of a teenager, this exchange likely sounds familiar. Not to worry. A new study published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience finds that teens are not simply refusing to listen to their parents; the problem is, neurologically, kids process their parents’ voices differently when they’re teenagers compared to their childhood years.

For the study, neuroscience researchers at Stanford University conducted functional MRI scans of youth ages 13 to 16-and-a-half. During the scans, they played recorded voices of the participants’ mothers and unfamiliar women. Both the moms and other women used the same nonsense words to ensure participants weren’t responding to the words’ meanings. The recordings were repeated in random order several times. The teens also listened to recordings of household sounds, such as vacuum cleaners.

This study followed a similar study of children ages 7 to 12 conducted in 2016 by the same researchers.

In both studies, participants identified their mothers’ voices about 97 percent of the time. In younger children, MRI scans showed mom’s voice triggered a variety of areas of the brain beyond the regions responsible for hearing, including reward centers, emotion-processing regions, and visual processing areas.

Among teenagers, brain responses in all areas increased in intensity. In fact, the relationship was so strong researchers could predict a participant’s age using the voice-response data. But notably, the teens showed a stronger brain response to the unfamiliar voice, especially in areas related to rewards processing and assigning social value. This change occurred equally in boys and girls between 13 and 14 years old.

Essentially, the researchers found that teens’ brains change to help them tune into new people and put less emphasis on their parents. This change helps teenagers develop socially and form connections with people outside of their families.

“The mother’s voice is the sound source that teaches young kids all about the social-emotional world and language development,” said Percy Mistry, Ph.D., co-lead author and a research scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Fetuses in utero can recognize their mother’s voice before they’re born, yet with adolescents—even though they’ve spent even more time with this sound source than babies have—their brains are turning away from it in favor of voices they’ve never even heard.”

The take-home message: Neurological changes in teenagers help them to pay more attention to new voices and lead them to tune out their parents’ voices. When your teen doesn’t listen to you, it’s not rebelliousness, but a normal developmental milestone.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: kryzhov/Shutterstock

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