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The Communication Conundrum

How Teenagers Hear Criticism

Parents often find it challenging to offer constructive feedback or criticism to their children. Especially when those children enter their teenage years. Though it’s not a universal absolute, the following pattern is familiar to almost all parents of teens. It goes like this: a parent attempts to initiate a conversation with their teenager. As soon as the subject turns to anything that approaches negative or unfavorable, the walls come up. The teenager becomes defensiv. Any meaningful communication becomes virtually impossible. New research in neuroscience offers reasons as to why this happens. Data indicates that when teenagers hear negative criticism, brain function in the primary neural networks responsible for emotional regulation, cognitive function, and social integration changes. And the changes lead to what many parents experience as typical teen shut-down.

Brain Imaging Studies: Teen Response to Maternal Criticism

In the “Neural Responses to Maternal Criticism in Healthy Youth” published in 2014, researchers performed brain scans on thirty-two teenagers—twenty-two girls and ten boys—while playing the teenagers recordings of their mothers making three types of statements about their behavior. They played positive statements, negative statements and neutral statements. The researchers were looking for changes in activity in three brain systems—the affective, or limbic system, which initiates emotional reactions, the prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotional reactions, and the cingulate cortex, which situates emotional reactions in an established social/relationship context. Their most interesting results came from the changes in brain activity displayed while the teenagers listened to the negative, or critical statements. Here’s what they found.

  • Emotional Reactions: While listening to critical statements, the teenagers showed heightened activity in the limbic system, specifically in the subcortical-limbic regions, which are responsible for initiating emotional reactions to external stimuli.
  • Cognitive Control: While listening to critical statements, the teenagers showed decreased activity in the brain’s cognitive feedback system, specifically in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for the regulation of emotional reactions generated by the limbic system.
  • Social Recognition: While listening to critical statements, the teenagers showed decreased activity in the brain’s social feedback system, specifically in the areas which are responsible for social cognitive function, i.e. understanding and contextualizing the perspective and/or mental state of another individual—in the case, the voice on the recording.

Caveats to This Study

It’s important to note that the study only used recordings of the teenager’s mothers. They did not use recordings of their fathers. In addition, there was no control group in the study. In further research, the same group of researchers could use recordings of people with whom the researchers have no emotional investment making the same types of statements, for the sake of comparison and statistical analysis of differences. Despite these facts, the data the researchers collected is important in understanding how the teenage brain functions while listening to their parents and in particular, while hearing criticism from their mothers.

Implications for Parenting, Teaching, and Helping Teenagers

Notwithstanding the limitations of the study, the results provide valuable information. They tell us what’s happening during classic “teen shut-down.” The combination of functional changes revealed by the real-time imagery reveal three important things:

  • Teenagers do, in fact, react emotionally to maternal criticism.
  • When their emotional reactions kick in, their emotional controls become compromised.
  • When their emotional reactions kick in, their ability to understand and relate to their mother’s point of view becomes compromised.
  • These changes in brain function linger for only a short time after hearing the critical statements.

What Parents Can Do

Keeping these physiological facts in mind, parents can perhaps work to avoid the perfect brain storm triggered by criticism. Even though a teenager might want to have a positive, productive conversation, their own brains might be getting in the way. If a parent notices their teenager withdrawing and getting defensive, the best approach may be to take a moment. Let the brain processes run their course. Then, try a different approach at a later time. Situating conversations that address behaviors in a context of support, love, and positivity might help. That approach will help create a situation that facilitates communication. Finally, it’s possible that these processes might be identical for all authority figures. Which would make this data critical for teachers, school administrators, therapists, and counselors. In short, this data can help anyone involved in the lives of teenagers.

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