Study Finds Teens' Brains Block Sound of Mother's Voice—Yeah, Moms Know

If you've ever felt like your teen is ignoring you, science has finally figured out why. The best part? It's not personal. The frustrating part? It's not going to stop any time soon.

Mom scolds her brother, who is passionate about computer games and not listening
Photo: Getty

Tell me if this sounds familiar to you. Last week, my kids returned to school from Spring Break. During break, my tween was given an opportunity to raise his reading class grade by completing some extra. Did I remind him every single day that he needed to get this done? Yes. Did he do his flipping reading assignments? No.

So, the night before heading back to school, this blessed child of mine, who I labored for 21 and half hours to get into this world, was stressed to the teeth trying to complete four hours' worth of work right before bed. If you think he whined, why didn't you tell me that this was due tomorrow!? you would be correct.

Every parent has, at some point, exasperatedly asked themselves, ''Why doesn't my kid ever listen to me!?'' Until now, there hasn't really been a great answer. But thankfully there are scientists who have endured the painful side of raising tweens and teens, so they took this age-old parental grumbling and applied the scientific method.

And what did they find? Tweens and teens really don't listen to their mothers.

A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience shows that teen brains shift from focusing on the mom's voice to the voices of peers. So, yes. My kid really was tuning me out. But to be fair, it's not personal. It's actually a cool function of nature.

The study took 46 kids between the ages of 7 and 16 and used functional MRI scanning to see what would happen when they heard their mother's voice and then an unfamiliar female voice. It is worth mentioning that the study has no mention of male or nonbinary parental participants. All of the participants had an IQ of 80 or higher and were being raised by their biological mothers.

Previous studies have shown that when babies and young children hear their mother's voice, the reward center in their brain will light up. What is different about this new study is that kids 13 and older did not have the same response; rather, their brains lit up the reward centers when they heard unfamiliar female voices.

"Just as an infant knows to tune into her mother's voice, an adolescent knows to tune into novel voices," lead study author Dr. Daniel Abrams, Ph.D., clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, told the Stanford Medicine News Center. "As a teen, you don't know you're doing this. You're just you: You've got your friends and new companions, and you want to spend time with them. Your mind is increasingly sensitive to and attracted to these unfamiliar voices."

Teens' brains are shifting toward more independence, which is entirely natural and expected. As it turns out, their brains may be filtering types of voices according to levels of importance. So, mom is no longer number one especially if that cute student in math class is taking up more think space. And when we remember that teens are more and more interested in risk-taking and novelty, this new vexing behavior suddenly makes a whole heck of a lot of sense.

This research may make most parents laugh with a nod of familiarity to the frustration of being flippantly ignored by their teens, but it may also help researchers better understand how and why kids with autism tune into specific voices and social stimuli. For example, younger kids with autism don't appear to have as strong a response to their mother's voice as kids without autism.

"Kids with autism often tune out from the voices around them, and we haven't known why," Dr. Abrams, Ph.D., noted in 2019 Standford Medicine News Center interview. "It's still an open question how this contributes to their overall difficulties with social communication."

While the science behind how we listen and communicate with one another is fascinating and will hopefully lead to many breakthroughs, the one breakthrough this exhausted mom is still waiting for is how to get my tween to listen to me.

Unfortunately, the science is still out on that one.

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