Teens Disconnect From Their Mothers' Voices, Research Claims

Does your teen listen to you? If not, it's probably closely related to changes that they experience at the brain level. In this article, we'll give you some more information.
Teens Disconnect From Their Mothers' Voices, Research Claims

Last update: 27 October, 2022

Teens disconnect from their mothers’ voices. This is partly because they prefer to listen to other people. Although this statement may sound rather radical, it’s the result of a study that concurs with previous research. This hypothesis would also explain why many mothers see how their relationship with their children is completely transformed during adolescence.

Directly or indirectly, almost all of us have witnessed this mutation at the relational level that occurs in adolescence. For some mothers, it’s a relief. For others, it’s the beginning of a grieving process for those years that’ll never return.

In the same way that a mother prepares for the birth of her child, it’s also recommended that they prepare for certain foreseeable evolutionary changes. This means they’ll be able to be active, not simply reactive. Moreover, they’ll stop feeling like they’re chasing a runaway train.

The central study of this article claims that teens don’t ignore their mothers because they don’t want to listen to them. Nor have they put conscious filters on to reject any of their mothers’ suggestions. As a matter of fact, it seems the issue could be far more biological. In effect, they no longer register their mothers’ voices as they did in childhood.

worried teenager
Teenagers disconnect from their mothers’ voices because they tune in to new ones.

Teens disconnect from their mothers’ voices

Teen brains no longer find their mothers’ voices so gratifying. According to research published in the Journal of Neuroscience, this sensation can, in part, lead to others. The study, which included only mothers and teens, used fMRIs to provide images of active brain regions. It provided the first detailed neurobiological explanation of how teens begin to separate from their parents.

The research recruited 46 boys and girls aged between seven and 16 years old. The researchers had the opportunity to witness their brain activity while listening to voice recordings from their mothers, and also from unknown women.

The study gave a detailed neurobiological explanation of how teens begin to separate from their parents. “Just as a baby knows how to tune in to its mother’s voice, an adolescent knows how to tune in to new voices”, said the study’s senior author, Daniel Abrams, Ph.D., clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

A series of brain scans

As we mentioned earlier, in adolescence there’s a change in orientation toward social goals that aren’t related to the family. Consequently, teens want to differentiate themselves from their parents. This is reflected in the time they spend with their peers.

Little was known until now about the neurobiological signatures of these changes. However, functional brain imaging was extremely revealing. Human voice processing in children and adolescents (ages seven to 16 years) produced distinct neural signatures for the mothers’ voices and unfamiliar voices. These reward and social value systems are situated in the nucleus accumbens and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Younger children showed greater activity in these brain systems for their mothers’ voices as compared to unfamiliar voices. However, the opposite effect was identified in teens. In them, there was a greater activity for the unfamiliar voices compared to the mothers’ voices.

A spectacular change

A Stanford University (USA) research team had previously found that, in the brains of children under the age of 12, hearing the mother’s voice triggered a burst of unique responses.

The changes were so apparent that the researchers were able to guess a child’s age simply based on how their brains responded to their mothers’ voices.

The study, published in 2016, showed that children can identify their mothers’ voices with extremely high accuracy. Special sound signals are activated, not only in the auditory processing areas of the brain but also in many areas that aren’t activated by unfamiliar voices. For example, reward centers, emotion processing regions, visual processing centers, and brain networks (those that decide which incoming information is most salient) are activated.

Enlightened child's brain
Children are able to identify the voices of their mothers extremely accurately.

Are teens aware of what they’re doing?

“Are you listening to me?”. This is a question parents often ask their distracted teens, and the answer is probably “No.” Many mothers feel sad when they feel ignored. It’s an emotion that intensifies when they compare the present with those years in which they were the center of their children’s attention.

Nevertheless, on the other hand, it’s really difficult for teens to realize that they’re changing. As a rule, their awareness only usually occurs when new dynamics have been established for some time.

Teens simply want to be with the people who are important to them in their lives. They have friends and new colleagues and want to spend time with them. Furthermore, their minds are becoming more sensitive and they’re drawn to these unknown voices. Reward circuits and brain centers that prioritize important stimuli are more activated by these unfamiliar voices. In addition, the brain activation that produces new voices is a phenomenon associated with normal maturation at the biological level.

“A child becomes independent at some point, and that has to be precipitated by an underlying biological signal. It’s a signal that helps adolescents engage with the world and form connections that allow them to be socially adept outside of their families” claimed one of the study’s authors, Vinod Menon.

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  • Abrams, D. A., Chen, T., Odriozola, P., Cheng, K. M., Baker, A. E., Padmanabhan, A., … & Menon, V. (2016). Neural circuits underlying mother’s voice perception predict social communication abilities in children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences113(22), 6295-6300.
  • Abrams, D. A., Mistry, P. K., Baker, A. E., Padmanabhan, A., & Menon, V. (2022). A Neurodevelopmental Shift in Reward Circuitry from Mother’s to Nonfamilial Voices in Adolescence. Journal of Neuroscience42(20), 4164-4173.

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