The Real Reason your Teenager is Ignoring You: The Experts’ Guide

Raising a teenager can be a difficult endeavor. With raging hormones, a developing brain and their internal struggle to make sense of it can cause teens to develop an emotional distance from their parents. This separation and seeming indifference distance can drive parents crazy, often prompting them to shout, “look at me when you’re talking to me!” 

However, according to a recent study from Kent’s School of Physiology, a teen’s apparent lack of attention to others while conversating may actually be a misinterpreted sign of paying attention. 

Kent’s School of Psychology Study 

According to their study, scientists from Kent’s School of Psychology found that teens spend 12 percent less time looking at other’s faces when engaged in conversation. While a teenager’s seeming lack of attention when talking to adults may sometimes be due to a lack of respect, this study found that this seeming indifference to other’s words may often actually be a teen “simply trying their best to pay attention. 

The senior author of the study, Professor Heather Ferguson, told the journal Nature Human Behavior, teen’s apparent indifference to a conversation with others may have to do with their developing brains than lack of respect. She says, “Evidence suggests teenagers find it harder to process the demands of conversation, including memory, attention and processing content, because of their developing brains. As a result, they may look away because this reduces the amount of complex visual information they need to take in a while following the conversation.”

“It seems that, in our ignorance of neuroscience, we’ve misjudged them.”

That said, experts have provided parents of a teenager with the following tips and guidelines created to help you mitigate misunderstandings, better help you understand your child's psychology, and help you communicate with your child. 

Tip Number 1: Stop Telling Your Teen to Look You in the Eye

Ferguson, whose research is on the cognitive basis of social communication, says: “Often as adults, we might reprimand a teenager for staring into space while we are talking to them.” Yet she adds: “A lot of the time that they are looking away, it’s not that they’re bored or don’t want to listen; it’s because actually, it’s harder for them to follow everything because their cognitive resources are still developing. So looking away reduces the extra information they’ve got to process.” 

The University of Kent researchers also found that during this conversation, “adolescents don’t just look less at the face, they’re actually deliberately moving their attention away to a plain wall background.” Ferguson’s interpretation is: “The face information is dynamic, it’s complex, so they move their gaze away to this plain background, so it’s not distracting them.” She adds: “So don’t force them to look at you — it doesn’t mean they’ll do any better; in fact, it might make them less likely to understand your meaning.”

Tip Number 2: Don’t Dismiss Your Child’s Warped Perception; Their Developing Brains Make Them More Sensitive Than You Think 

When your teenager storms home and says, “They hate me at school,” most parents tell them they are ridiculous, says Frances Jensen MD, chairwoman of the department of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the New York Times bestseller The Teenage Brain. Yet to them, the catastrophe is real. “Studies have shown that if you show concerning images to a teenager or an adult, activity in the teenager’s amygdala and other parts of the brain that mediate fear [measured by blood flow in functional MRI scans] is twice as high than in an adult. It’s probably because the connections between our frontal lobes to our emotional regions send a signal back: ‘Just calm down, calm down.’ But, unfortunately, the adolescent brain has not fully matured these connections, so they don’t have that.”

It means, Jensen says, “they are experiencing emotion in Technicolor to our black and white.” But, she adds: “Never say, ‘That’s ridiculous’ to a teenager. They are simply trying to understand the world with the brain they have. Somebody wore the same outfit as them to school. Their brain is reacting as yours would when you read about a terrible international incident.”

Understand that the situation is delicate. “Don’t berate or belittle — explore and help them reason through why they feel this way. Calmly say, ‘They’ll be wearing something different tomorrow.’ At the moment, they don’t see that. It’s highly vivid to them.”

Tip Number 3: Don’t Expect Your Child to Tell You Everything 

Your questions are met with silence. Are there developmental reasons we can’t always prompt our teenagers to express how they feel? No, but Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says: “It might be hard for them to know why they feel how they do. It’s probably more to do with the complexity of their lives.” That said, she adds: “Teenagers tend to be good at articulating to each other — which suggests it’s not something they’re incapable of. They can do it.” And there’s a difference between how they interact with each other and us. “Probably for adaptive and evolutionary reasons adolescents need to become gradually independent from their families, and to affiliate with peer groups to learn how to fit in,” she says. “Creating their own language and social worlds is really important.”

How to Talk to Your Teen About Risks, so They Will Listen

Adolescence is a time of heightened neuroplasticity, says Blakemore, the author of Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain. In this period of rapid reorganization and development, “the environment and what we’re exposed to shapes and molds our brain.” There’s a bump in susceptibility to addiction, Jensen says. “Their synapses are connecting stronger, longer, harder, and that’s good for learning, but not good for addiction — which we now know is a form of learning and requires synaptic plasticity. They are all about immediate gratification, and also, they don’t have their frontal lobe to say, ‘Bad idea, don’t do that.’ ”

Because the frontal lobes remain under construction into early adulthood, daily alcohol or cannabis use, for example, modifies the way that part of the brain develops. Explain the potential long-term side-effects, Jensen advises. Don’t expect them to read between the lines. “When you talk to a teenager, make it almost like a Ted talk. They’re novelty-seeking, they’re interested in facts, and if you don’t make it interesting, you’ve lost them.”

Help Them Resist Peer Pressure

Teenagers are highly susceptible to peer pressure, Jensen says. “The limbic system — the sexual, the risk-reward system, the social brain — is connected quite well by the time you are a teenager, so they are running on a social brain, essentially.” This reward system is more active, especially in early adolescents, when they take risks, Blakemore notes, “particularly when they’re taking risks with friends.” (In studies, even adolescent mice drink more alcohol with cage mates than alone.)

At the same time, the prefrontal cortex, that in adults normally inhibits risk, is still developing,” she adds. “It’s a double-whammy where they have this increased rewarding and emotional feeling when they take risks.”

Parents get frustrated, Jensen says. “How could you do that? What were you thinking?” It’s more practical to prepare them with the language to minimize danger yet help them preserve their social standing. So, she says, “If they are going out drinking and you’re trying to explain the hazards of getting in the car with a peer who’s about to drive while intoxicated, help them think of an excuse they can have ready. Like — ‘Oh, I’d ordered an Uber to pick me up at 10.30 pm, so I need to wait for it.’ Rather than succumbing to the pleas of peers to be the sixth person jammed into the back seat of a car with an impaired driver.”