Teens Brain Shuts Down When Mom Is Scolding

December 17, 2014

How to help kids thrive


Every parent has had the frustrating experience of admonishing their teenager and getting the impression that, somehow, the lines of communication are broken. You know, they look at you, they don’t misbehave, but you suspect that what you say is not reaching their brains. Is it that they don’t care? Are they being absolutely rebellious? Pretending to listen, but thinking, “blah, blah, blah, I don’t care, Ill just pretend to listen, hopefully this will be quick”?

The good news is that they might not be responsible for it. They are not tricking you. They are not being disrespectful.

The bad news is that it seems that their brains are protecting them from the influence of their parents!

A group of researchers from Universities of Pittsburgh, California Berkeley and Harvard tested the reactions of young people while being scolded by their mothers. (Why did they only test with mothers?) Scans of their brains showed that activity increases in the part of the brain that handles negative emotions and decreases in the parts of the brain where emotional control and understanding of the points of view of other people are processed.

Neuroscience validates the suspicions of exasperated parents, but it also teaches you that you must not blame your teen for not hearing.

Having a parent criticizing or being angry at them is hurtful for kids at any age, even after they’ve reached adulthood. Remember also that being a teen means you are at a stage in your life when you must quit the comfortable nest. And Mother Nature has done things pretty well to arm you: this is the point in your life when you must learn to start doing things by yourself, when you must learn to break out of your family’s protective circle (See “Teens And Risk”)

Does this mean that, as parents, we should save the energy and stop reprimanding them? No. What this study reminds us, or teaches us, is that the more positive and less critical you are in your discussions with your teens, the more information will reach their brains. I wrote a piece about this specific subject: “Why Teens Don’t Learn From Bad News”

I could empathize with you and say I know that being the parent of a teenager is a period the majority of us find challenging. But, we are parents and we must do our parental jobs. Quitting at this precise moment would be damaging for your kids.

They don’t “absorb” everything, but some of what you say gets through. The more positive you are the more will get through.

Keep in mind that they may not really get it or agree with what you say, but showing them that you care about them, that you love them and that you make the effort to tell them what you think is good for them, is critical.

There is one thing that will always stay with them, for all their lives, bringing them security and helping them building self-esteem: that you take care of them and that you love them.

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2 Comments on “Teens Brain Shuts Down When Mom Is Scolding”

  1. Dr Par Donahue Says:

    Don’t be concerned that you children don’t hear everything you say, be concerned that they see EVERYTHING you do.


  2. Lucy Dahill Says:

    I completely agree Dr Par Donahue and Valerie, Teens watch and learn, if they see what you do and it does not match what you say you have lost them before you start…Loving them in full for who they are and seeing their behaviour as a form of expression will mean the conversation is open as a 2-way street not a judgement that shuts down all understanding and therefor all communication.


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