'Teenagers shut down their brains when being criticised,' according to study

Teens block negative remarks to stop situation from spiraling, the study said

Teenagers are widely believed to shut down their brains and stop listening when they think they are being criticised and now there is scientific evidence backing up this claim.

Young people who seem stroppy and uncooperative are not doing it just to be difficult, a study shows, as they simply cannot help blocking out negative remarks when they feel they are under verbal attack.

A group of 40 teenagers between the ages of 11 and 17 – with the average age of 14 including 25 girls – were tested in a lab in a study by University of Pittsburgh, California-Berkeley and Harvard neuroscientists who published results in the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience journal.

The subjects - 26 of whom had no psychiatric health history and 14 that were diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder - each listened to two 30-second audio clips of their own mother, one of which talking about mundane every day things such as shopping and the other criticising them on their habits and behaviour.

A sample audio, as reported by Wired, said: “One thing that bothers me about you is that you get upset over minor issues. I could tell you to take your shoes from downstairs. You’ll get mad that you have to pick them up and actually walk upstairs and put them in your room.”


Three areas of the brain were analysed; the limbic system, where negative emotion is processed, the prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotion, and the junction of the temporal and parietal lobes, which helps in understanding the perspectives of others.

Researchers found that during criticism and for a period afterwards, teenagers were found to have reduced activity in the areas relating to emotional control and empathy, with an increase in negative feelings.

The shutting-down can also be considered as a preventative measure to stop an already negative situation from spiralling out of control.

The study suggests that the results are not significantly impacted by the gender, age or mental health of the teenagers.

The study concluded: "Youth shut down social processing [and] possibly do not think about their parents’ mental states."

"Parents may benefit from understanding that when they criticize their adolescents, adolescents may experience strong negative emotional reaction, may have difficulty cognitively controlling this emotion and may also find it challenging to understand the parent’s perspective or mental state," it added.

Participants were excluded if they had a current diagnosis of other mental health issues such as OCD, PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar, psychotic depression or schizoaffective disorder. Those taking SSRIs were also excluded.

The experiment did not state or test out whether the same situation occurred when fathers criticised their children.