Here's What Happens To Teens' Brains When Their Parents Yell At Them, According To Scientists

December 6th 2014

Jessica Glassberg

Admit it. As a teen (and probably sometimes now) there were never enough fingers and toes in the galaxy to count the amount of times you’ve rolled your eyes and let out an exasperated sigh in response to something your parents said. Their voice morphed into that of Charlie Brown’s teacher and all you really heard was, “Wah-wa, wah-wa, wah-wa.” Inevitably, your parents then nagged you for not listening and you’d roll your eyes and let out another exasperated sigh and so the circle of teen/parent life continued. (Cue: The Lion King soundtrack.)

The "wah-wa" may be science

Turns out, your reaction wasn’t your fault. Well…maybe.

In a recent study conducted by the Universities of Pittsburgh, California-Berkeley and Harvard, 22 healthy pre-teen and teenage girls and 10 boys were invited into the brain imaging lab. The youths, whose average age was 14, were invited to listen to their own mothers provide neutral statements, praise, as well as critical statements. (Hmm...not sure how much of a welcome invitation that would be.)

The study suggested that “youth may respond to maternal criticism with increased emotional reactivity but decreased cognitive control and social cognitive processing.” So, when the youngsters heard the criticism, they had a negative emotional reaction (see: eye roll and exasperated sigh) as well a lack of ability to process what was being said (see: “Wah-wa, wah-wa, wah-wa). But a surprising find was that, while hearing their mother’s criticism, the adolescents were not able to understand where their mother was coming from.

Okay, what does this all mean? 

Moms should stop nagging their kids and just leave it to the dads? (Come on…why just study the moms? Dads can nag with the best of ‘em.) Or maybe parents should just stop talking to their children altogether?

NOOOO! If you’re a teen reading this, maybe you stopped at the headline, printed it up, and posted it on your parents’ bedroom door with a note, “SEE!” Or maybe you printed up multiple copies so that any time a parent even attempts to talk to you, you just hand it to them and walk away while texting them that you wouldn’t be listening anyway.

If you’re a parent who is in the thick of it with your teenager, take a deep breath, and give yourself a break. Know that you shouldn’t take it personally that your once loving and affectionate little kiddo has now mastered the ability to see all the way back into his brain with his world famous eye rolls. It’s happening to parents throughout the land. You’re not alone. 

As the study suggests, parents being critical of their children is, to some extent, a necessary evil. While too much criticism has been linked to a negative self-image, anxiety and depression, moderate criticism teaches children rules and moral standards. So…keep doing what you’re doing. Unless of course, what you’re doing is totally excessive. No need to be more obnoxious than your kids. They can’t completely help it. You can. So do everything with loving care, and hopefully some of it will sink in eventually.

And if you’re in the midst of that in between time in your life where you were a teen not that long ago (in the scheme of things, we can even say 10-20 years ago isn’t that long ago), and you don’t yet have a teen of your own, maybe call up good ‘ol mom and or dad. Have a chat. Ask them about their day and actually listen to what they have to say. 

But just remember, when your own child turns 13, think about nurturing their curiosity, understanding their changing bodies, and embracing their struggles as they become an adult. Or just ship them off until they’re 21 because they’ll be tuning you out until then anyway.