- The developmental process of separation-individuation is a natural and normal part of adolescence.
- New research indicates a neurobiological basis that underlies why teenagers pay less attention to parents starting between ages 13 and 14.
- Functional MRI brain scans provide the first detailed neurobiological explanation for how teens begin to separate from their parents.
As a parent, dealing with teenage kids can be frustrating to the point of exasperation. When your teenagers seem not to hear you when you’re speaking directly to them or appear to intentionally ignore your requests to do the dishes, take out the garbage, or complete their homework, it can be crazy-making. Such scenarios are all too common, causing parents (including myself when my own children were adolescents) to wonder whether this reflects some sort of developmentally-based brain dysfunction or simply willful disregard. After all, teenagers are renowned for blowing off their parents’ wishes and requests.
This makes sense from a developmental perspective: The process of separation-individuation is a natural and normal part of adolescence. It involves separating from one's family of origin and childhood influences enough to figure out who one is and further become one's own person. In seeking greater independence, teenagers increasingly pull away from their families and gravitate toward their peers, which frequently causes upset and conflict between teens and their parents. This separation involves a certain amount of experimentation, risk-taking, and direct as well as indirect limit-testing and rebelliousness, including not paying attention to/disregarding the words of their parents.
However, new research from the Stanford School of Medicine[i] suggests that there is actually a neurobiological basis for this age-old phenomenon. Published in the Journal of Neuroscience, this study used functional MRI brain scans to give the first detailed neurobiological explanation for how teens begin to separate from parents. It found that starting at about age 13, kids’ brains tune in less to the voices of their parents, specifically that of their mother, and more to novel voices.
Prior to the age of 12, as a previous study by the same researchers found[ii], kids’ brains experience their mothers’ voices as uniquely rewarding; after that, as this latest research indicates, not so much.
The recent study included teenagers 13 to 16.5 years of age, all of whom had an IQ of at least 80 and were being raised by their biological mothers. Participants were screened for any neurological, psychiatric, or learning disorders. The results showed that the neurobiological shift toward different voices occurred between the ages of 13 and 14, and that there were no differences between boys and girls. The study also found that responses to novel voices in the brain’s reward center increased with age such that the researchers were able to accurately predict how old participants were through the voice-response-specific information on the functional MRI scans.
Teenagers aren’t consciously aware that they’re paying more attention to unfamiliar voices, much less the reasons for it. They just know they want to spend more time with their peers. In the same way that infants become attuned to their mother’s voice as a survival imperative, teens are developmentally drawn to voices that are distinct from their parents as they move toward separating and individuating from them.
The shift in adolescent brains that underlies this attraction to “new” voices involves the activation of the reward center, as well as other areas that recognize experience as important. This aligns with the widening interest of teenagers in social activities and the spreading of their attention outward beyond their family as they engage with the world and create connections with a range of others – all of which facilitates increased independence.
So, when your teenage kids aren’t paying attention to what you’re saying, seem to be ignoring you, or are otherwise oppositional, it’s at least in part because they are – literally, in the neurobiological sense — wired to prioritize voices other than your own.
Copyright 2022 Dan Mager, MSW