Why teens can’t help tuning out mom’s voice 

As kids become teenagers, unfamiliar voices suddenly become more interesting than mom’s

a mom looking at her daughter, who is looking annoyed while holding a phone

In teenagers’ brains, areas associated with reward respond more strongly to unknown voices than the voice of mom.

rbkomar/Moment/Getty Images Plus

Do you sometimes ignore your mom while chatting with friends? If you’re a teen, that’s fairly common. And new research may explain why so many adolescents tune out their mom’s voice. 

Young kids’ brains are very tuned in to their mothers’ voices, science has shown. But as kids morph into teens, everything changes. Teenagers’ brains are now more tuned in to strangers’ voices than of their own moms’, new research shows.  “Adolescents have this whole other class of sounds and voices that they need to tune into,” explains Daniel Abrams. He’s a neuroscientist at Stanford University School of Medicine in California.  

He and his team shared their findings April 28 in the Journal of Neuroscience.  

The researchers scanned the brains of 7- to 16-year-olds as they listened to things said by their mothers or by unfamiliar women. The words were pure gibberish: teebudieshawlt, keebudieshawlt and peebudieshawlt. Using such nonsense words allowed the scientists to study voices on their own, not what they were saying. As the kids listened, certain parts of their brains became active. This was especially true in brain regions that help us to detect rewards and pay attention.  

Abrams and his colleagues already knew that younger kids’ brains respond more strongly to their mom’s voice than to a stranger’s. “In adolescence, we show the exact opposite of that,” Abrams says. For teens, these brain regions respond more to unfamiliar voices than to their mom’s. This shift in what voice piques interest most seems to happen between ages 13 and 14. That’s when teenagers are in the midst of puberty, a roughly decade-long transition into adulthood.  

These areas in the adolescent brain stop don’t stop responding to mom, Abrams says. It’s just that unfamiliar voices become more rewarding and worthy of attention. Here’s why: As kids grow up, they expand their social connections way beyond their family. So their brains need to begin paying more attention to that wider world. 

That’s exactly as it should be, Abrams adds. “What we’re seeing here is just purely a reflection of this.”  

But mothers’ voices still have special power, especially in times of stress, one 2011 study in girls showed. Levels of stress hormones dropped when these stressed-out girls heard their moms’ voices on the phone. The same wasn’t true for texts from the moms. 

The brain seems to adapt to new needs that come with adolescence. “As we mature, our survival depends less and less on maternal support,” says Leslie Seltzer. She’s a biological anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She was part of the team that carried out that 2011 study. Instead, she says, we rely more and more on our peers — friends and others closer to our own age. 

So while both teens and their parents may sometimes feel frustrated by missed messages, that’s okay, Abrams says. “This is the way the brain is wired, and there’s a good reason for it.” 

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer at Science News. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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