Being a teen can be difficult at times – but being a parent of a teen can be even more difficult. Sometimes, it’s like kids just close inside themselves and nothing from the outside can reach them. Well, according to a new study from Harvard, Pittsburgh and California Berkeley – that may actually be the case. Teen brains actually “shut down” when they hear mom’s criticism.

Image via Cl Pocket Guides.

In order to test this idea, researchers led by Kyung Hwa Lee invited 32 healthy pre-teens and teens – average age 14 and including 22 girls – into their brain imaging lab. They then made the kids “suffer” a 30 second clip of their mothers criticizing them, while scanning their brains. Here’s an example:

“One thing that bothers me about you is that you get upset over minor issues. I could tell you to take your shoes from downstairs. You’ll get mad that you have to pick them up and actually walk upstairs and put them in your room.”

You know… this kind of stuff. They then analyzed the brain activity during the “criticism part”, and compared it to the brain’s activity while the mothers were talking about something irrelevant – like grocery shopping. They also wanted to see if the effects are temporary, or if some of them actually linger on.

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Results were very interesting, though not entirely clear. They found that during the criticism, and for a while after that, the teens’ brains showed more activity in areas involved in negative emotions. No surprise here, of course, but they also observed reduced activity in regions involved in emotional control and in taking other people’s point of view. Basically, their brains shut down and they refuse (at least partially) to accept external points of view.

“These results suggest that youth may respond to maternal criticism with increased emotional reactivity but decreased cognitive control and social cognitive processing. A better understanding of children’s responses to parental criticism may provide insights into the ways that parental feedback can be modified to be more helpful to behavior and development in youth.”, researchers write.

The main takeaway is that mothers should be more considerate to how their teen’s brains are responding. However, teens don’t get a get out of jail card; you don’t get to say “I can’t listen to you mom, neuroscience says so”. In fact, there are several significant question marks in this study.

First of all, how you interpret the neuronal response is… well… interpretation. You don’t really know how accurate their take is – especially as they rely on previous research to establish a background. Also, as Christian Jarrett points out,  participants were given no clear instructions, and so we don’t know how much attention they were paying to the clips. Also, there may be another reason for these neuronal changes – maybe it’s just a way of the teens detaching themselves from the problem in order to make sure it doesn’t escalate even further. It’s not clear that the researchers’ interpretation was the correct one, but it does raise some interesting problems.

“Parents may benefit from understanding that when they criticize their adolescents, adolescents may experience strong negative emotional reaction, may have difficulty cognitively controlling this emotion and may also find it challenging to understand the parent’s perspective or mental state.”

Yep, I think we pretty much all knew that – and now we know it neuroscientifically. If only we could apply it more in real life.

Journal Reference: Lee KH, Siegle GJ, Dahl RE, Hooley JM, Silk JS. Neural responses to maternal criticism in healthy youth. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2014 Oct 22. pii: nsu133.