Teens Tend to Overreact to Criticism from Moms According to Recent Brain Research


Parents of teens seem to find many opportunities to provide what they see as constructive criticism to call attention to such behavior as leaving clothes on the floor, not helping around the house, coming home late, spending too much time on their cell phone and on and on and on. Those of thus who have parented teens know that this does not always result in positive change in behavior but rather resistance, retreat or reaction. This in turn tends to irritate parents and usually ends up in more criticism.

In a research project published in November 2014 in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh studied the reaction of normally developing adolescent females to a recording of criticism from their own mothers. They used recorded neutral comments from the mothers as a control. The teens’ brains were scanned while listening to the two stimuli. The study found increased activity in several brain regions associated with processing of negative emotions when they listened to the critical statements. They also found that in other regions of the brain associated with emotional regulation, brain activity actually decreased while listening to the criticism. There were a number of limitations as well as a number of unanswered questions in this initial study but the results are still interesting to ponder.

First of all this study used a small sample comprised of only girls and mothers. It is quite possible that boys may react similarly and that teens may respond in this way not only to comments from mothers but fathers, teachers and perhaps peers as well. The information is consistent with some basic concepts of how the brain reacts to situations related to negative stimuli. Negative stimuli are usually perceived as a threat by the brain and results in one of three reactions: fight, flight or freeze. The purpose is to protect us from real or perceived harmful situations. The feeling part of the brain reacts and does so quickly. The thinking part of the brain usually moves more slowly and instead of reacting it reflects and then responds.

So why do parents provide criticism? They hope that it will lead to a change in behavior. Essentially they are hoping for a positive response. Of course a reasoned response would require the reflection of the thinking brain before this could happen. What this study shows is that critical remarks shuts down the reflective brain and fires up the reactive brain. Definitely not a pretty picture but one that is quite common during the teen years.

So what is a parent to do? Give up and give in? Keep on nagging? React with restrictions? These are probably the most common reactions. However, if we look at these situations as a problem to be solved and approach them as such, better outcomes often result. This of course requires patience, persistence and engaging the teen in a mutual problem solving and can sometimes include some compromising by both parent and teen to arrive at a solution they both find acceptable. The operative here is acceptable not necessarily the “perfect solution” or the “ideal solution” but one both are willing to try out. The reason this works is that this approach will activate the thinking brain rather than the feeling brain.

If this makes sense to you and you want to give it a try here are few tips on how to give it a try:

1. Identify a specific problem. Be able to describe the behavior in detail including what it looks like, when it happens, how often it happens and why you think it should change (a real reason, not just because you want it to).

2. Find a good time to have a discussion or schedule a time. “I would like to have a time to talk about a couple of things, how about tonight after dinner?”

3. Start the discussion with some positive statements and ask your teen how things are going.

4. Then you can say, “you know I have noticed that for awhile now ____ and it bothers me because ____.” What’s up with that?

5. Give them time to share their point of view. Then say, “Thank you for sharing that. Because I would like _______________, how can we work together that will come up with a solution that would work for both of us.”

6. This should lead to what is called “brainstorming” where a number of possible solutions are discussed. Then you can try to mutually select one to try. If this does not seem possible than you can say, “this seems hard right now, let’s see if we can come up with a compromise.” Ask the teen how they think is a reasonable stance. Then state yours (quite a ways from theirs). Then you can say, “Well that is quite a difference. Half way would be ___. Do you think we could meet each other in the middle?”

Related: Tips for Getting Teenagers to Open Up

Please realize that this these are just guidelines and you will need to find an approach that feels comfortable to you and is acceptable to your teen. Also, this should work with normally developing adolescents. If your teen has developmental or psychological issues, this may need to be modified or you may need to meet with a counselor for more help. If your teen seems more challenging than others, you might want to read, The Explosive Child by Ross Greene, PhD for a more in depth discussion of how to approach your teen.

Finally, there is no substitute for working to build a positive relationship with your teen by spending some fun time together, providing compliments and encouragement, listening without judgement and just letting them know you love them no matter what.