It’s Not Always What You Say To Your Teens, But How You Say It

We all know that tone of voice is important in talking to partners, bosses, colleague and friends. A recent study in Developmental Psychologyshows that it matters just as much with our teens. In the first study of its kind, researchers asked mothers to give their teens (14 and 15 year old boys and girls) the exact same message using a a controlling tone of voice and a supportive tone of voice.

It’s not always what you say to teens, it’s the way you say it.

Each of the mothers said 30 sentences that concerned a teen’s school day. Students then answered questions on a survey about how they would feel if their moms had spoken to them that way. The study results illustrated, “that subjects were much more likely to engage with instructions that conveyed a sense of encouragement and support for self-expression and choice.”

In other words, the teens were more likely to do what they were asked, and more likely to put effort into it, if the tone their  mother used was supportive. If the same message was offered in a pressured or controlling tone of voice, the teens said they were less likely to put in effort and, even more important, did not feel as close to the speaker.

The study’s lead author, Dr Netta Weinstein of Cardiff University, said:

If parents want conversations with their teens to have the most benefit, it’s important to remember to use supportive tones of voice. It’s easy for parents to forget, especially if they are feeling stressed, tired, or pressured themselves. Adolescents likely feel more cared about and happier, and as a result they try harder at school, when parents and teachers speak in supportive rather than pressuring tones of voice.

The results of this study showed:

Across most outcomes, adolescents who listened to mothers making motivational statements in a controlling tone of voice responded in undesirable ways. In contrast, autonomy-supportive tones elicited positive reactions from listeners as compared to listening to mothers who used a neutral tone of voice to deliver their motivational sentences.

The authors of the study postulate that the results of the study may be relevant to teachers, as well as to parents. Might teachers who use supportive language better motivate their students? We all know somewhat intuitively that you might be able to catch more bees with honey, but here is a study that proves it.

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About Lisa Endlich Heffernan

Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan is the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author.
She started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and is co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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