'Rooted in neurobiological changes': Your teen is wired to ignore you, shows new study

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When it comes to lending you an ear, your teen's lights may be on, but no one's home. (Getty Images)
When it comes to lending you an ear, your teen's lights may be on, but no one's home. (Getty Images)

The blank stares and delayed responses leave all parents wondering whether their teens are ever really listening to them.

We hate to confirm what you already suspected, moms and dads, but when it comes to lending you an ear, your teen's lights are on, but no one's home.

Infuriating as this may be, the reason for this is less deliberate and more biological as a recent study by researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine has shown. 

PODCAST | PARENT24/7: Teens and their changing moods 

Tuned into the unfamiliar 

The study included teens aged 13 to 16 who underwent brain scans while listening to various sounds, from random household sounds like a running dishwasher to voices. The voices were both familiar - coming from their mothers - and unfamiliar, coming from two women the teenagers did not know. 

The teens listened to recordings of random words said by their moms and the women who participated in the study.  

The researchers used a magnetic resonance imaging scanner to study what was happening in the participants' brains. 

The results showed a considerable increase in the teens' brain activity when listening to the voices of the unfamiliar women and less activity when listening to their moms. The results were the same for both girls and boys. 

The brain areas most affected while listening to the unfamiliar womens' recordings were the reward-processing system called the nucleus accumbens and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a brain area concerned with evaluating social information. 


'Neurobiological changes'

Looking at the data across the age groups, researchers discovered that a kind of shift occurs between 13 and 14, where children go from being tuned into their mother's voice to those of strangers. 

"Our findings demonstrate that this process is rooted in neurobiological changes," commented the study's lead researcher Vinod Menon, who added that this shift is part of a teen's journey to independence. 

"A child becomes independent at some point, and that has to be precipitated by an underlying biological signal. That's what we've uncovered: This is a signal that helps teens engage with the world and form connections which allow them to be socially adept outside their families," he explained. 

Stanford researchers showed how the opposite was true for children aged 12 and younger in their previous research. The research showed that the sound of a mother's voice triggered brain areas from the reward centres to emotion-processing regions and visual processing centres for this age group. 

Where the same was not true about unfamiliar voices. 

Also read: Is my teen lying to me? 

'A critical period of brain development'

According to local experts from the University of the Witwatersrand, Kate Cockcroft and Victoria Williams, the teenage brain also functions entirely differently regarding social situations in general.  

"The teenage brain is still undergoing a lot of change. It is not fully mature. The brain area that undergoes the most dramatic changes in the teenage years is the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead). This brain part is responsible for our high-level functions such as decision-making, planning, setting and achieving goals, inhibiting undesirable or inappropriate behaviours or thoughts, understanding social interactions and self-awareness," the duo explain. 

Considering all these cerebral shortfalls, the duo urges parents and caregivers to cut their teenagers a little more slack. 

"It is important to remember, on the surface, teenagers may look 'grown-up', but they are actually going through a critical period of brain development!" 

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