Did you know that fetuses recognize their mother’s voice? That’s even before a child is born. It’s true. They do. And from birth, children prefer their mother’s voice. A study using MRI technology has even shown that the brains of 7- to 12-year-old children respond differently to their mother’s voice than to other women’s voices. In response to their mother’s voice [but not in response to another woman’s voice], the 7-12-year-old’s brain lights up in brain areas associated with emotional processing, reward processing, and the processing information about the self. In other words, a child’s brain is uniquely attuned to their mother’s voice even before birth.
But something happens around the age of 13 years. If you’re a parent, you probably noticed it. Our children turn 13-years-old and suddenly they become deaf to their mother’s voice. They appear to quit listening. A 2022 study published by the Stanford School of Medicine reveals that this change is not necessarily a willful choice to disregard their mother. The change is deeper than that. It’s a change reaching deep into the brain itself.
Researchers utilized data from teens who were 13 to 16. 5 years of age for this study. These teens listened to recordings of their mother and two unfamiliar women say 3 nonsense words. Researchers used nonsense words to avoid meaning or emotional content eliciting a response. They also listened to recordings of random household sounds. While listening to all of these voices and sounds, brain activity was recorded using MRI. Not surprisingly, teens easily distinguished their mother’s voice from the other women’s voices. All the voices elicited greater activity in several brain areas when compared to younger children. Interestingly, researchers could even predict the teen’s age based on this increased brain response.
But, and this is the kicker, unfamiliar voices created greater activity in the area of the teen’s brain associated with reward-processing and the area involved in determining the value of social information. In other words, our teens’ brains biologically responded differently to unfamiliar voices than they had prior to 13 years of age. For teens, the brain areas associated with reward processing and determining value light up for unfamiliar voices more than they do for their mother’s voice. All the voices were heard (even your voice, Mom) but the unfamiliar voices were more rewarding and valued.
What does all this mean for the parent of a teen? Teens are naturally moving toward individuation. They are preparing to move away from home and into the world. As a result, they are becoming more attuned to those voices outside of the family. Ironically, they still need a parent’s guidance and wisdom. So here are some tips to help you maintain effective communication with your teen, even has they become attuned to the “outside world.”
- First, don’t take it personal. It’s not about you. Your teen is maturing and preparing to leave the home. As a result, they are becoming attuned to the world outside the home. Don’t take it personal.
- Trust what they have learned from you and your home over the last 13 years. They have internalized a great deal of knowledge, values, and even a family identity. Trust the time and love you have invested in your teen over their childhood years. You would be amazed how many times a parent brings a child to therapy and says, “They just don’t seem to listen.” They explain things they have told their teen that they fear their teen has not hear. Then, I meet with their teen who tells me, many times word for word, what their parents have said. And the teen voices these statements as their beliefs, not their parents’ beliefs. Our teens are listening. Our children have learned. Trust the love you have invested in your teen already.
- Remain involved. This begins with listening. Give your teen your full attention when they want to interact with you. Listen intently and deeply to your teen. Sometimes parents have a difficult time learning that the art of listening is more than simply responding. Your teen will more readily hear you when they know you consistently do your best to listen intently to them.
- When you have something to tell your teen, make sure you get their attention first. Address them by name, with kindness. Look them in the eye. You might gently put a hand on their shoulder or their arm. Don’t interrupt them unnecessarily. And if you need to interrupt, do so politely and respectfully.
- Involve your child in other community groups with like-minded adults. You might involve your teen in youth groups, drama groups, sports groups, dance groups, academic groups…whatever group might spark your teen’s interest. Meet the adults who manage these groups. Sometimes our teens will hear advice from a coach long before they hear the same advice from their parent. I used to laugh (or, more honestly, boil with frustration) when my daughter would come home and tell me this amazing piece of wisdom she had learned from a teacher or music instructor. Why? Because I knew I had told her the same thing many times over the last several years. But she needed to hear it from another adult.
Our teens are maturing. They are preparing to leave home and make their mark on the world. That’s what we have worked for…but it comes with some sorrow, doesn’t it? Part of that “letting go” involves realizing that our voices take on a different meaning to our teens. Don’t take it personal. Listen to them deeply. Love them with your presence. And watch them blossom into adulthood on the other side of the wilderness of adolescence.