Here’s the Real Reason Your Teen is Tuning You Out

It turns out, there's a scientific reason why your teen isn't listening

by Nancy Reynolds

This post: Here’s the Real Reason Your Teen is Tuning You Out

Written by: Marybeth Bock

If you’re the parent of a teenager, chances are this scenario might sound all too familiar… 

Mom:  “Hey, hon, how was your day today?”

Teen: “Umm, I dunno… wait, what did you say?”

Mom: “Just curious how you did on that big math test. And, oh, don’t forget you have an ortho appointment tomorrow. Did you put it on your calendar?”

Teen: (Rummaging through the fridge) “There’s never anything good to eat in this house.”

Mom: “Did you hear anything I said? Hello? Were you listening at ALL?”

Teen: Long pause. Blank stare. “Uhh, not really.” 

Mom: Sigh…

Here’s the Real Reason Your Teen is Tuning You Out


Why is it that our once chatty, “hung on our every word” child suddenly becomes an expert at ignoring us the minute they hit the teen years? 

Have we messed up parenting them? Are they being defiant or disrespectful or downright rude? Is there something drastically wrong with their hearing? 

Our teens’ selective hearing can, no doubt, frustrate us to no end and even lead to family arguments (and a few slamming doors). But before you chalk up your teen’s rather annoying, “I’m totally tuning you out,” habit to rudeness, laziness or sheer rebelliousness, there’s a small fact that should make you feel better. 

It turns out, there’s a scientific reason why teens may not hear what their parents are saying.

Researchers have known for decades that babies’ brains are wired to tune into their mother’s voice. For young children, their mother’s voice plays a very important role in their healthy development and bonding.

Before the age of thirteen or so, children exhibit increased brain activity when they hear their mothers’ voices, meaning, for the most part, they pay more attention to them than they do to other (unfamiliar) voices.

But… right about the time our kids become official teenagers, a biological shift begins to happen within their adolescent brain. 

Just as our kids’ bodies are undergoing massive changes throughout puberty, profound neurological changes are happening as well. 

Recently, a group of researchers from Stanford University used functional brain imaging to study the differences in how children and adolescents’ brains react to the voices of their mothers versus the voices of strangers.

The study, which included participants ranging in age from 7 to 16, showed that while kids twelve and younger showed greater brain responsiveness to their mother’s voice, the older adolescents showed just the opposite – increased responsiveness to the voices of strangers. 

These findings prove that the teen brain becomes biologically wired to shift away from the voice of their mothers and more toward unfamiliar voices.

It’s interesting to note that researchers found no difference between teen boys and teen girls when it came to the changes in sensitivity to voices. Every teen that participated in the study went through the same neurological shift between the ages of 13 and 14.

In other words, your teenager isn’t ignoring you on purpose to irritate you, at least not all of the time. The fact is, their ability to tune into your voice has simply been modified as a result of the changes going on in their brain – all of which are completely out of their control.

Dr. Daniel Abrams, the lead author of the study in The Journal of Neuroscience, shared this helpful interpretation of the data:

“As a teen, you don’t know you’re doing this,” Abrams said. “You’re just being you. You’ve got your friends and new companions and you want to spend time with them. Your mind is becoming increasingly sensitive to and attracted to these unfamiliar voices.” 

The findings in this study are the first to propose that as kids mature, their hearing becomes less focused on their mother and more on the voices of a variety of people around them. These new findings are also supported by other behavioral studies that show a teen’s brain has heightened sensitivity to anything that is new and unusual – and the voices of their parents are anything but new!

And, if you think about it, it all makes perfect sense.

Our kids are pulling away, choosing friends over family, putting more credence (oftentimes) on what their friends have to say than us and relying less on us for guidance about how to make their way in this world.

Sure, it might be disheartening to see our child who once wanted to spend every waking moment with us suddenly become far less interested not only in what we have to say but in spending time with us. But it’s all part of growing up and normal human development. 

These changes in their brains are a vitally important part of healthy social growth and help teenagers begin to better socialize with others, familiarize themselves with the perspectives of others, learn to navigate more complex relationships, and even develop compassion and empathy. 

So, take heart, parents. I know it can be incredibly annoying when you feel like your teen is only hearing half of what you’re saying (or maybe nothing at all), but it’s not always an intentional act of disrespect. 

Their bodies and brains are in the midst of massive physiological changes – so much of which we can’t see. The next time you’re feeling ignored, just remember to take some deep breaths and try to remember that it’s all a normal part of growing up. 


Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor, and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.



If you enjoyed, “Here’s the Real Reason Your Teen is Tuning You Out,” check out these other posts:

10 Myths About Teenagers Every Parent Should Stop Believing

12 Must-Watch TED Talks for Parents of Teenagers

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